Saturday 21 Dec 2013
Check against delivery
It's great to be talking here at the University of York.
In June, I moved my department from London to the BBC's wonderful new home in the North, Media CityUK in Salford. A key part of our moving there is to serve better our audiences in the North by building partnerships with organisations and institutions across the region, and this great university is one we want to build ever closer links with.
Now I know that this is, by and large, quite a serious, academic conference, so I think you can be congratulated for picking the light option! There will be some fun: I have lined up some great videos for you, but there are three important points I want to make about the BBC's ability to inspire a life full of learning for all our audiences.
First: the BBC's extraordinary ubiquity across the nation means we can reach the households other educational institutions struggle to reach. We don't need to knock on doors and beg to be let in. We're already there, in kitchens, in living rooms, on computers and on mobiles...
This gives us a route in everywhere, but particularly into those notoriously difficult-to-reach groups which 'the system' always struggles with: looked-after children, ethnic minorities, the socially excluded.
Second: the BBC's terrific portfolio of great content gives us a huge range of opportunities to create exciting and effective educational experiences for people. So many teachers complain they are in a perpetual fight for their audience's attention. We already have their attention! We can share it with teachers. Our job, my job, is making sure that our content is properly charged with educational value.
Third: if our learning is to succeed, we must make sure that our offering fits in to the environment that today's youngsters are living in. John Couch, Apple's VP of Education, points out a useful distinction: "Technology is only technology to those born before it. To everyone else, it's simply their environment."
Marc Prensky – one of the world's leading experts on the connection between games and learning – has put it slightly differently: he describes children as 'digital natives' whilst their parents and teachers were 'digital immigrants'.
That is the river we have to cross. Some children today have spent thousands of hours on smart phones, tablets or computers and this has shaped the way they think and it's changed their expectations.
My two year old daughter Nikita thinks our TV is broken. She so used to playing with her mother's iPod that she can't understand why nothing happens when she touches the TV screen.
The environment today is often held up as damaging. It's not surprising: people are always hostile to change. In Ancient Greece, Socrates warned about how writing would damage educational standards because people would no longer bother to remember things!
But it's not all bad. Today, we get some older children, boys in particular, who have developed the same twitch speed reflexes as fighter pilots and racing drivers simply by using video games and other gadgets. We have to understand and appreciate this, which represents a leap for all of us – because it is not how we grew up. Certainly, it's not how I grew up!
To illustrate this, I brought this along this script, which is incredibly important to me. No, it's not the EastEnders script which reveals whether or not Tyler survives... it's a script I wrote for Doctor Who when I was eight. I stumbled across it in the attic when we were moving house from London to our new home in Buxton and it took me right back.
When I was eight, I was a massive Doctor Who fan and even had my own Doctor Who scarf, which I wore all the time – even in summer. Here it is now.
Anyway, the script is called Doctor Who and the Grogmen. Let me give you a taste! [READS EXTRACT]
"So bad, it's good," you might say. I wrote this script as part of a school project. We hadn't been told to write about Doctor Who – that was my choice – and I'll say more how the teachers judged my efforts later. But the point was that I put probably more effort into writing this than anything else when I was at primary school and that was because of one very simple reason: I was absolutely crazy about Doctor Who.
Maybe Doctor Who had the same effect on some of you when you were younger? If so, you're going to like what's coming next.
I'm going to show you something VERY special. This is a preview – it doesn't air officially until tomorrow night on BBC Three. You wouldn't believe how many arms I had to twist to show you this mini-episode!
But that's not the only reason it's special... there's another. See if you can work out why whilst you're watching. [SHOWS CLIP]
So. What's special about that? There's the usual Doctor Who. The usual Tardis. The usual monster. But the special bit is this: it was not written by Steven Moffat or Neil Gaiman but by a group of four nine year olds from Oakley CE Junior School in Basingstoke. [SHOWS PICTURE ON POWERPOINT]
They were winners of the BBC Doctor Who Script To Screen competition. They worked with their schools to craft three-minute scripts of an episode. The winners got to go to Cardiff, meet the Doctor and see their script being filmed.
The response was overwhelming – we received hundreds of entries. The quality was overwhelming – the energy and enthusiasm in the writing was self-evident. And, most crucially, the results were overwhelming. 96% of teachers agreed it was a very good tool for teaching literacy and writing skills. 95% of teachers stated that it was an enjoyable way to learn.
This competition was not an untypical activity for the BBC. We do stuff like this all the time. Education is part of our Reithian holy trinity dating right back to 1924: to inform, to educate, to entertain. So this was nothing new!
Doctor Who's always had educational aims. In fact, that was a pivotal part of it when the programme was first conceived by Sydney Newman – BBC Head of Drama in the early Sixties. His original proposal was to alternate episodes between the historic elements and the aliens. So one week you'd get history – the Stone Age, the Aztecs or Marco Polo – the next week you'd get a ride into a plausible vision of the future.
Newman made a standing instruction that there should be no bug-eyed monsters, but then along came Terry Nation's Daleks, and television history was made.
It's this mix of education and entertainment which makes the BBC unique; it's our secret recipe, our point of differentiation with our competitors and our point of recognition with our audiences.
It's the combination between learning and pleasure that is so magical. And it's that combination which marks out every piece of BBC content, from Bang Goes The Theory to EastEnders to Brian Cox. It's what separates Strictly Come Dancing from The X-Factor. It really works, and not just on TV, but radio and web as well.
So, if you read Robert Peston's blog on the stock market crisis, you'll find it's not just informative, it's also educational; if you watch our Bitesize revision clips, they're not just educational, they're entertaining. We can smuggle learning in through the back door.
So we didn't start by saying, "Right, here's a new programme we've commissioned to improve literacy amongst nine year olds." Instead, we went out there and said, "Hello. Here's Doctor Who."
We're good at making connections: not overcrowding people with information, but giving them just what they want; anchoring what people need to know in what they want to know.
Of course, the best teachers already do this and I want to make sure they know the BBC has a range of content available to help them do that.
Last year, we published our new learning strategy: A Life Full of Learning. This strategy aims to identify and exploit the learning potential that exists across our output – on television, radio, online, nationally regionally locally, from news to music, history to sport, drama to arts.
You might have noticed some of the fruits of this strategy already. For instance, EastEnders recently launched a project, getting teenagers talking about bullying on the spin-off programme, E20. Wallace and Gromit have been inspiring people about science and engineering through Wallace and Gromit's World Of Invention. Or the way that Hands On History is helping people up and down the country research the history of their own High Street.
I could talk about all of these or any one of these. But I'd prefer to just go into one really deeply and properly interrogate it. So I thought I'd really take you behind the curtains of the Doctor Who script to screen project and ask the killer questions. Did we make it truly educational? Did we consult with teachers effectively and efficiently enough? What classroom materials did we develop and, crucially, did it work?
So, starting with the problem. The problem that we were looking to tackle here is pretty well known and pretty profound: the pernicious literacy problem amongst 9 to 11 year old boys.
The Government's own figures show that 19,000 boys only have the reading age of a seven year old at the time they start secondary school. This can have a catastrophic effect on the rest of their education, almost instantly condemning them to failure.
Literacy is a vital entry point to all learning. You can't do anything without it. So for these starting secondary school is like beginning a 1,500 metre race with a shot-putt tied to their feet.
And this problem hits hardest in the worst possible places. All of the research shows the problem is far more protracted amongst disadvantaged boys in deprived areas – almost half of all 10 and 11 year old boys on free school meals do not reach the expected standard in literacy.
So this pours fuel on two other much wider problems – the attainment gap and the gender gap. So we recognised that this was an issue that we had to tackle.
From then, identifying Doctor Who to resolve this was actually relatively straightforward. It was an obvious choice, because the Doctor Who fan-base is at its most fervent amongst 9 to 11 year old boys – as I remember! So this was a round-shaped solution to a round-shaped problem.
Of course, we also knew that script-writing is part of the national curriculum... so the idea almost wrote itself.
So, after giving the project the green light, the challenge then was to make sure that we developed a competition which was genuinely educational.
Fortunately, there's no shortage of people involved with this issue who were eager to help and get involved. We consulted with a group of 12 teachers, four literacy specialists and talked to charities such as the National Literacy Trust. They helped make sure that we really focused the competition.
We didn't allow entrants to write whatever they wanted. They didn't get a complete free hand. Instead, we imposed some ground rules. So it had to be set in the Tardis; you couldn't just make up your own monster, you had to select one from a list of four; and the script could last no longer than three minutes.
By imposing these rules, we ensured that the pupils focused on the three most crucial elements of scriptwriting: character, plot and script. This alleviated the risk that they'd run away too far with their imaginations – as I did with my own script (getting rid of the Tardis in the opening scene!).
The other thing that our consultative group helped us do was develop learning resources for teachers which were appropriate and meaningful. Have a look at this. [SHOWS WEBSITE IN INTERACTIVE WAY]
So now you're looking at this in the same way the teachers would have done. It's all pretty simple for them to navigate, with loads of downloadable resources for them just sitting there on the shelf.
So you can see we thought carefully about how this project could play out in the classroom. We broke the task down into six lessons – introduction, character, setting, aliens, the Tardis and then writing the three-minute script.
Each of these six lessons was supported by a comprehensive lesson plan. Let's look at the first lesson: the introduction to writing a script. [SHOW LESSON PLAN]
This provides a structure, flow and content for the whole lesson. It shows where to talk, where to invite group work, where to play videos.
And there are three videos: there's the challenge from the Doctor; an interview with the lead Doctor Who script-writer, Steven Moffatt, and key production staff, about what makes a great script; and a thrilling video of the Doctor defeating the Daleks. The video challenge from the Doctor was filmed straight to camera especially for delivery on classroom whiteboards so the children felt like he was really talking to them in the classroom. We also recorded other similar video challenges with other cast members such as the Doctor's companion Amy Pond.
And all the challenges were in some way related to script-writing.
The video of the Daleks was supported with the original storyboard and script from that programme, so the pupils could see how something went on the journey from script to screen.
Let's have a look at one of the interviews that we did around how to create the perfect three-minute script. [SHOWS VIDEO]
We also put sound effects and other gizmos on the site. A lot of this stuff was very simple for us to provide: it was stuff that we had kicking around anyway, but making it available to pupils really transformed their understanding of what goes into a successful screenplay.
So, there we go. And that was just one lesson. There are five others. So we prepared that, put it out there and then crossed our fingers that people would like it! This is what happened. [SHOW VIDEO]
One of the schools you saw in that footage was Ferry Lane School in Tottenham. Ferry Lane is one of the most challenged schools in the country, with disadvantaged pupils and sitting in a notoriously deprived area. Nearly two thirds of the pupils are boys, almost all are from ethnic minorities and a high proportion of children are either on free school meals or have special educational needs.
So this was the acid test for the programme.
In particular I was really happy about the comment from Jack Sloan, the Year 5 teacher, that the competition reached reluctant writers and helped them to flourish. This was probably the greatest accolade we could have asked for. It showed we were making some indent into the kinds of regions and problems we wanted.
And we received similar praise and feedback from across the country, through our extensive evaluation.
Teachers were overwhelmingly supportive: impressed at the levels of motivation we generated and commenting that the quality of the writing was much higher than they'd expected.
Parents said they were surprised to see how excited their kids were about the project: working feverishly on it in and out of school.
Pupils, of course, said they loved every minute of it.
Of course, not all of the feedback was perfect. There were some learning points for us: providing a longer lead-in time, so teachers can work it into their pre-term planning; and trimming down the lesson plans slightly, but overall, it was a great success.
One of the things that made this project really different – along with any other bit of learning we do today – was the web. In the past, learners had to work much harder to find out more information. Now, we can put it all out there for them on the web for them to access at home.
Professor Bill Rankin has written about the three ages of information.
The Medieval Age, when students had to travel for information, heading out to centres of learning like Oxford.
The Age of the Printing Press – when information was tabulated for memory and people could purchase it (if they could read).
And, now, the digital age, in which information is freely available and where the learner is absolutely in the centre of the learning experience.
The latter obviously makes for a much better sort of learning and it's one which we should celebrate and be proud of.
It's so easy to be disparaging of what the web has done to today's kids – but in fact the web opens up new ways for children to exploit their most natural of instincts, their curiosity, their desire to discover and their longing to make new friends.
Too often, we look at this through a prism of negativity. For example, when looking at the use of games by children the focus has always been on games such as Grand Theft Auto and so on. But there is now a wide body of opinion growing around the view that games can really help children develop their learning.
We have been using games techniques ourselves. In the latest Doctor Who interactive episode, which we're launching in this very city in a month's time, we've built in a whole learning layer, so you can go on 'Amy's History Hunt'.
And we've also collaborated with our new MediaCity neighbours CBBC on educational games around their most popular shows like Big Babies and Trapped.
But we don't know enough about the impact of games on education, which is why today I'm announcing some new research around games-based learning.
This research will look to create a framework that can assess and provide guidance on learning in games. This will allow us to develop games in the future that are entertaining and fun but that also have the strongest possible learning outcomes. And that the money we invest in these games is delivering real value for money.
We'll be feeding in all our existing experience with games and the interactive episodes to the research along with getting some outside theory and perspective.
The research will be kicking off in the next couple of weeks and will take around six months. We'll be publishing the results of our findings so keep a lookout for that in 2012, as I hope it will help everyone with an interest in games and learning.
I've got to say, if all these resources had been around when I was eight, when I knocked out 'Dr Who and the Grogmen' it might have been a little bit better than it was... My teacher didn't like it anyway: she said it was too derivative, lacking in creativity. She believed that the best creativity came in isolation. The truth is of course that creativity comes from making exciting connections.
And that's what I hope that we're really doing at the BBC. Using our reach, our content and our technology to enable others to make connections: educating, entertaining and inspiring a whole nation of learners.
By anchoring learning in what people love, people are far more likely to love learning.
And what I'd love to do now is to take your questions – and not just about BBC Learning work. I hope I've now proved to you all that I'm a bona fide Doctor Who geek, so I would be delighted to answer questions on any of the 11 doctors, the 35 companions across any of the 782 episodes which have been broadcast since 1963.