Saul Nassé - BETT show

At the heart of iWonder are some brand new, engaging, inspiring, innovative interactive guides. These guides are really rich in terms of content – mixing videos, text and timelines."Saul Nasse, Controller, BBC Learning
Date: 27.01.2014     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.05
Category: Corporate; Learning
BBC Controller of Learning Saul Nassé's speech at BETT show, London Excel, on 24 January 2014.

Hello, I’m Saul Nassé, Controller of Learning at the BBC, husband of one, father of one and fan of one... Doctor Who.  If any of you are too, you will recognize this glorious umbrella as the property of the seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. It’s the genuine article, and really very valuable. It’s particularly valuable to me today, as in this humble brolly lies the subject of my talk.

Did any of you see the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special? Wasn’t it splendid? In fact, I kid you not, we reconvened the Bedfordshire group of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society for the first time in 23 years to watch the episode together in a private cinema at the Aldwych. It was fantastic seeing how we’ve all regenerated over those 23 years. But, anyway, the reason I’m holding this question mark umbrella is not because of Who geekery – although I have hopefully now convinced you of my credentials - but because the theme of my presentation is questions.  

Questions, questions, questions. ‘Why are we here? Where are we headed? Do any of us even care?’ I used to be Head of Religion at the BBC so, seriously, questions like these came as second nature. We could create weeks and weeks of content from such questions!

Questions were also a big part of my life as editor of Tomorrow’s World… ‘Where exactly is the cutting edge? What will the future look like? And – will the spray on acid-protecting gloves I’m wearing even work?!' The answers were never quite as precise as the questions but that wasn’t the point. The joy came from grappling with the question.

Questions dominate our waking hours. No doubt it was a questioning process which led you to this talk. ‘To beeb or not to beeb – was that the question?’

Of course, questions are even more important now that I’m in charge of Learning at the BBC. Good learning is all about good questions – from teachers and students.

There are many sorts of questions, of course. Leading or loaded. Rhetorical or recall. Open or closed.

Now one of the great joys of working at the BBC is that we have the keys to the archive, so I rummaged around and assembled a montage of some of the finest questions we’ve seen asked on the BBC in recent years.

Have a look at this.

[Plays clips]

If you liked that, you should have seen the ones that got away... Terry Wogan and George Best, Alan Partridge and Noel Gallagher or Michael Parkinson and Mohammed Ali.

But what do we learn from these questions?  

The Mrs Merton question was a classic example of a loaded question: the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?' type of question. Loaded questions are not genuine enquiries. They have more to do with the questioner imposing their point of view… So loaded questions are often used by politicians. Bill Clinton once asked ‘Do you want to abolish the affirmative action programme that produced Colin Powell. Yes or no?’ Cripes! What can you say to that?

Jeremy Paxman, like many political interviewers, often starts with open questions to relax his guest but then zones in on the target issue and his questions become more closed. This leaves the guests with no wiggle room. They panic. And that’s exactly what happened to poor old Michael Howard there. Nowhere left to go.

And then last but not least we have the riddley type of question which featured in Doctor Who’s 50th year… Many of you will remember having fun with this at school. Knock Knock. Who’s there? Doctor. Doctor Who? Exactly…

So different types of question can produce very different effects.

Questions can introduce new perspectives. The other day, I bumped into Greg Dyke, the former Director-General of the BBC. He asked after my daughter Nikita and questioned, ‘So, is she funny or not? Kids are either funny or they’re not!’ New perspectives…

Questions can inspire. One of the most challenging questions in the BBC is ‘Is that REALLY the best you can do?’ Some editors will ask that question even before they have seen the programme!

Questions can hook people in. We use them in TV programmes. Why don’t you? Question Time, A Question Of Sport. The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy asked what was the answer to the universe. The answer was 42 – which meant nothing, but it certainly kept people talking!

So questions can inspire, engage and inquire. That is why they are so powerful in the learning process.

Plato was the first one to really demonstrate that, with the Socratic dialogues. And they were exactly that – dialogues, not monologues. So it would start with a statement that Socrates would then chip away at from every possible angle, using questions. It was the ultimate in interactive learning!

The point was that it was the learner who was asking questions, not the teacher. That was the formula for creating interrogative, probing and critical minds. Most people would agree that that is still the best way of learning.

But the classroom structure does not really encourage or accommodate that sort of probing. The classroom was designed around an ‘I talk, you listen’ model. The sage on the stage, as they say. And it is a model that persists to this day.

I’ve read a lot about questions in the classroom. One article says that teachers ask children an average of 291 questions a day, while the average child asks only one question per one-hour class per month.[1]  Hard figures to substantiate and there must be a lot of variety from classroom to classroom but the point’s well made.

And if you compare that with the bombardment of questions that a naturally curious four-year-old child can throw at a parent in a five-minute drive to the supermarket. 'Where do my thoughts come from, daddy? Why can I only see one thing when I have two eyes, daddy? When are you going to die, daddy?'

Of course, many teachers work really hard to draw questions out from the class, a la Socrates. I heard of a teacher who had a sign at the back of the class which said, ‘The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.’  When asked what it meant, the teacher was over the moon.

But there are limits to the kind of questioning that can be accommodated in a classroom with 30 kids – with 30 backgrounds, thirty ideas, 30 perspectives…

But things are a changing. The internet offers a world in which learners can ask their own questions at their own pace, following their own curiosity and intuition, and then sharing their own unique conclusions based on their own unique perspectives. 

It encourages children to have enquiring, interrogative, creative minds.  In fact it demands that of them – there is no point or pleasure to the web if you’re a passive receptor of information. 

In the past we might have wanted people to be more passive when we were preparing them for lives in factories, but that is not the case anymore.  Britain’s future lies in having far more developed minds.

And technology gives us the power to really satisfy the most curious and inquisitive pupils, who weren’t always so easy to satisfy or accommodate. Now: the capacity for self-led learning is so much greater.

The BBC can really help with this. As many of you will know, the BBC is under a statutory duty to educate – as well as to entertain and inform. Throughout our history, we have always tried to find innovative ways to smuggle education into people’s homes.  For instance, Doctor Who, which is now primarily regarded as a captivating action adventure, was actually originally designed as a device for teaching children history. Hence, the Doctor followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. We’ve also created a wide range of fantastic education resources for teachers and students over the years.

But technology gives us a golden opportunity to seriously raise our game: improving the quality and range of the learning experience.

That is why I am so delighted that we have launched iWonder this week.  It’s a brand new interactive experience, and at the heart of every page is my friend the umbrella.  A question.  iWonder is packed with questions.  Not any question.  Certainly not every question, but questions that are designed to tantalise, to excite, to spark curiosity and sustain it.

We’re launching iWonder bit by bit over the next few months. So, today I’m just giving you a tantalizing tease of what’s on offer right now but there will be plenty more good stuff coming online over the next few months.

At the heart of iWonder are some brand new, engaging, inspiring, innovative interactive guides. These guides are really rich in terms of content – mixing videos, text and timelines. They also rich in terms of technology – so they work seamlessly on laptops, tablets or mobiles… And they’re rich in terms of talent – the very best of the BBC’s presenters and experts have queued up to contribute.

We’ve tried to ask questions that prompt more questions. So Kate Adie presents a piece asking whether WW1 was a revolution for women. Hugh Pym asks whether WW1 really almost bankrupted Britain. Gary Sheffield asks whether history misjudged the Generals. And Dan Snow has written a piece asking how so many soldiers survived the trenches.

Let’s have a look at that.

[Demo of Dan Snow iWonder guide -]

The question is instantly challenging because of course the idea that most of us have of World War 1 is one of total annihilation in the trenches. There was some truth in that. As Dan Snow points out, on a single day, 1st July 1916, 20,000 British men went over the top and died. But overall 88% of soldiers who served in trenches avoided death. The vast majority.

So he explores how that happened: examining their typical day; exploring how the trench was constructed; looking at how much time they actually spent in the firing line. You see a step by step process to the guide.

That is just one of the guides.

Let’s take a look at another.

[Demo of Ian McMillan iWonder guide -]

This guide poses the question: has poetry distorted our view of World War 1?

When we think of World War One, we picture soldiers, ‘coughing like hags’ in the ‘sludge’ of the trenches, dying men, ‘guttering’ and ‘gargling’ around them… But all of this striking imagery came from just one man – Wilfred Owen – and he was just one of the millions of men who fought in the war and just one of the thousands who wrote poetry about the experience.

So we explore how his poem rose to prominence when others did not, and how it came to feature so heavily on the curriculum. We end by asking whether ‘dulce et decorum est’ to rely on one poet so heavily….

These guides have all been built around questions: questions designed to get people really thinking. Questions that are deliberately designed to stretch your cognitive learning, so it is like taking your brain to the gym: a mental workout.

Different questions stretch different cognitive abilities. At the lowest level, you get questions of knowledge. ‘What is Doctor Who?’ You get questions of comprehension. ‘Compare the educational benefits of a formal history lesson and an episode of Doctor Who?’ Then you can put those questions to application. ‘What kind of Doctor Who episode best fulfills the BBC’s mission and why?’ Then you get questions of analysis. ‘Explain the benefits of five different episodes of Doctor Who.’ Then you get questions of synthesis. ‘Take an episode of Doctor Who and rewrite the script removing the educational content.’ And finally evaluation. ‘What benefit does an episode of Doctor Who have for children?’  Of course that particular taxonomy is more Doctor Bloom than Doctor Who, but our challenge is bringing the two together, matching pedagogy with programming, education with entertainment.

We want our questions to go as deep as possible, to be as stretching as possible.

Our first iWonder guides are all about World War One and we’re launching more over the coming days and weeks as part of a big season of we’ve got going across the breadth of BBC TV, Radio and Online. There will be 25 guides just on World War One initially but we will be publishing many more across a range of genres and topics over the coming months – posing questions about natural history, science, religion and ethics and much much more. 

iWonder is designed to unlock the learning potential of content right across the BBC, making it much easier to navigate, wrapping in some of the  excellent content we have on our learning zone – our online resource of clips for teachers to use in their lessons. 

Much of this material is based around asking questions.

This is from our ‘deadly dilemmas’ site.

[plays clip]

Here we explore Madagascar. But this is not like the Dreamworks film, with Ben Stiller and David Schwimmer…We are the BBC so this is the REAL Madagascar, it poses real questions from real kids who we really sent to Madagascar to investigate what they saw as the big issues.

They prepared a number of clips for us. Each ends with a killer question for classrooms to ponder over.

For instance, they found endangered bats on the island. They were very excited about this – not just because bats are intrinsically exciting – but because they quickly learned about the important contribution bats make to the local ecosystem – munching away on mosquitoes and the like, preventing the spread of malaria…

They thought this was marvelous. But then they found out, to their astonishment, that the locals occasionally eat bats, when there is no other protein available.

There lay the dilemma: is it right for people to eat an endangered species?

There’s no right or wrong to this question. It depends on your values, your perspective and whether your general approach to life is short term or long term.

They can discuss these issues for days or weeks. But, this is not an exercise in futility: for when kids chew over these questions, they are likely to stumble off into all sorts of tangential enquiries about poverty, sustainability, disease, malnutrition, trade, history, geography and wherever else their curiosity takes them!

That is the beauty. That is the power of questions.

The other element I want to touch on is Bitesize…

Bitesize is one of the best things the BBC does. A large majority of students have used it at one time or other. It does what it says on the tin, offering bitesize chunks of revision with video, audio and content clips, all of them linked to and relevant to the UK national curriculum.  They end with questions – our Bitesize quizzes are enduringly popular.

Of course, most of the people who access Bitesize do so because they have questions in their mind… Whether it is questions about the plot of the Lord of the Flies, minimalist music in the 20th Century or how to ask someone to marry you in German.

And the really big thing we’re doing at the moment is bringing together Bitesize with our Learning Zone content and schools resources through our new Knowledge and Learning Beta. You can see how all resources link to the curricula, by key stage and topic so that, whatever your question, you know you’re in the right place – whether you are a student or teacher

There is something here for everyone, whether you are key stage 3, trying to work out how to buy a loaf of bread in French; key stage 2 and trying to find out about decimals and fractions or key stage 1, trying to work out how to put words together.

One of the things I’m really excited about is where this has the potential to lead. Our plan is to integrate all of it in the longer term, so that people can track their learning journeys across the whole of the BBC’s content, asking questions and finding answers.

Confucius he said ‘the man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.’

So let me make a fool of myself for a minute. What do you think? Are we doing the right things? Are we in the right place? Are we heading in the right direction? Is our purpose right? Is our mission right? And let me be clear, I am asking these questions as head of education at the BBC, not as a man in the midst of a spiritual crisis!

But I do want the BBC to really up its game over the next few years. For many decades, licence payers have invested to get the best out of the BBC. Now, the BBC is investing to get the best out of licence payers.

The best we harness our own talent, creativity and stories at the BBC, the more likely we will be to draw out the talent, creativity and stories of our viewers.

The better the questions we ask, the better the questions they will ask.

With iWonder, we are doing just that – the faces of the BBC telling the most compelling stories in a beautifully fluid online experience.  Asking questions that you might never have thought to ask, and answering them in ways you won’t forget.

Now, just one last question for you – and it’s on Radio 4 at 8 pm tonight… Any questions?

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