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Get with the (TV) programme

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Teachers could learn a lot about successful lesson planning from the writers of television drama series, says Yvonne Williams

I have long scorned the obsession with the orthodox three-pm lesson. Today I advocate something eke: a lesion in three acts - using the structure you would find in a primetime TV drama. Bear with me.

At the beginning of the millennium, more faith was placed in the skeleton than in the substance of a lesson. The three-part starter-middle-plenary pattern mangled many a good action. Starters didn't have to be integral to the main activity and the middle war frequently squeezed when starters overran. But it was making enough time for pupils to display their learning in the plenary that caned the most angst.

Fortunately, the structure hat gradually loosened (apart from when inspectors called or internal monitoring added tension to the proceedings). Along with this loosening. new ideas have come to the fore to challenge the three-part structure: most notably Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction. According to Adam Riches, writing in Tec they "consolidate what good teaching looks like, breaking it down into digestible chunks. No faff, no gimmicks, just good instruction".

Unfortunately, the digestable chunks can sound rather like spoonfeeding. And "small steps" can become a chuffle.

Even if you leaven your teaching with quizzes, examples, explanations and models, all carefully paced to achieve optimum brain workout and impactful learning, the lesion can still leave pupils - and teachers - cold.

I can't help feeling that pupae are still treated at empty vessels. Their capacity is optioned in accordance with the best that the latest pedagogical theories can offer. It is one-dimensional, so it's no surprise when pupils don't engage.

This is where it might be useful to look to TV drama instead. Three of the most successful and influential television dramatists of recent years have been Stephen Poliakoff, Russell T Davies and Jed Mercurio (the later Twitter threads for Mercurio's Line of Duty reveal fans who are seriously committed: revisiting former series, analysing the characters and speculating about the ending).

The first thing they have to teach us is the importance of the series arc. Ofsted inspection overemphasises the individual lesson at the expense of the sequence. Consequently, beginning teachers invest too much energy in creating each one afresh. Experienced teachers know that it's more time-efficient to work in sequences, and co think more about the place and function of each lesson within a scheme to provide a cohesive learning journey.

Our classroom audience needs teachers who think and plan long-. Medium- and short-term, like Russell T Davies, the screenwriter who revamped Doctor Who in 2005. Whereas Doctors in the original series had had adventures aver four to six episodes, Davies established a larger, overarching narrative in which to place the individual episodes. He used a cumulative shape across the entire series, leading to the grand finale. His first series had the motif "Bad Wolfe" scattered about in different episodes, to excite curiosity and create a sense of foreboding in the audience. It was only in the grand finale that the meaning of "Bad Wolf" was revealed.

Teachers might wonder how they could possible replicate Davies achievement. He was reviving a near-extinct brand when he took over Doctor Who. I would put his success down to mastery of form - the ability to exploit and flex its numerous elements. As the BBC Writersroom blog pun it: "Great writer matter medium and form, and manipulate it; not-so-great waters ignore it." The same could be said of teachers.

Sequencing can actin with metacognitive learning. If pupils reflect on the entire unit's order, they should be able to infer why lessons have been arranged and evaluate the impact. Fan of big series like Doctor Who do this kind of analytic all the time and present their reviews on YouTube.

Now let's look at the shape of individual lesson in light of such series.

The opening

I have never been a fan of getting a class to copy learning objectives from the board. Curiosity is sacrificed by making the direction of travel too explicit: its more powerful to withheld the objective in the tradition of crime tenet and carefully finess the reveal.

Some teachers dare to do away with the standard form and adapt the lesson shape to each stge of their scheme. So there will be an introductory lesson, serving to establish the context and excite curiosity. The is the lesson equivalent of the opening of the TV action series The Six Million Dollar Man, in which the lead character's backstory is replayed, showing his space capsule crash-land and his body being rebuilt with bionic limbs, giving him superhuman abilities.

Or, instead of a quiz to start the lesson, how about mimicking a televisual opening sequence? Asking pupils to write down the highlights of the fact lesson - "Previously on ..." - and to discuss why they are so important would be a way of sharing previous learning and improving the abilities of recall, selection and evaluation.

The hook

We often associate drama with flash lighting, sensational events and fact pacing but, actually, long drawn-out sequences can be more powerful. Stephen Poliakoff's 1999 television drama, Shooting the Past, contains the best hook I have ever seen. Marilyn, the manager of a photograph archive, has to persuade Anderson, president of the US company that now own the collection, not to split up the archive. Like the best teacher, the makes Anderson turn off his phone. She wears down his resistance at she feeds him one photograph at a time to build up the story of Lily, a young Jewish girl, the subject of many photographs taken by her adoring father. The story takes Anderson from Lily's adoption by a German family during the Third Reich, through a concentration camp, to a photograph from years later, showing that she hst somehow made it to London.

The setting is not extravagant - a spotlight shines on each moment captured by Lily's father, Anderson cannot help but become overcome by emotion. The viewer hat to fill in the gaps and make the connections alongside Anderson.

What we so often forget at teachers is the importance of our pupils' emotional intelligence and development, and the moral heart that shapes the beet drama. Teachers are dramatists and their dramatisations are made all the more effective by the ways in which they encourage questions - as Marilyn does - work with expectances and shape conclusion. It's slow-paced, unbearably poignant, and bring; an aesthetic dimension that is needed in both TV programmes and lessons.

The value of procedurals

Problem-solving dialogue is the meat and drink of procedural. Recently I became addicted to House, MD, a medical-procedural-cum-soap. Every week there is a new case: alarming symptoms, wrong diagnoses (it's never lupus) and brilliant solutions.

The best episode to showcase the dramatic elements of investigation depicts the hero. Dr House, in a near-deserted lecture theatre: by the end of the episode, there's standing room only. How does he do it? He knows how to tease out the problems, giving the medical students one symptom at a time, inviting diagnoses and then revealing the consequences of the wrong answers before moving on to the next symptom. The tension increases because the stakes are high - yet the likelihood of embarrassment doesn't deter contributors from participating.

Some of the correct is down to timing. It's noticeable that not one of the trainee medics asks if House's topic will appear in the exam - they are too intrinsically and dramatically involved. In lessons the mantra of "this will probably appear in the exam provider the wrong kind of tension: the sort that numbs curiosity and makes pupils overly dependent on the teacher for formulaic or "correct" answers to keep the beast of failure at bay.

Purposeful dialogue and problem solving

Leather and scenes depend on purposeful dialogue to sustain audience involvement. How much worthy content has been lost became the delivery was flat? Lake the creator of a long-running TV series, you have to know your pupil-character; and keep control by deciding when to let them intervene.

Imaginative television uses dynamic dialogue, so we should use the structurer lavishly: the opening problem to hook the clot, the build-up ac the discussion draws in more people who refer to each other's points. Teachers, like scriptwriters, know that dialogue isn't just about the words on the page - it's alto about the things that are not said. Silence can speak volumes. Ad the BBC Writersroom blog point out, we read the silences between the contributions and work within them, sometimes to bring the non-speakers in or to understand why they are reticent.

Writers put characters together for dramatic effect but, equally, it may be that dampening dramatic outcomes it the way to go in a lesson. The teacher is the choreographer who decides where the pupils sit on the classroom stage and the beet combination of personalities to walk off each other - or the ones lent likely to combust - when it comes to group work.

It's also worth getting pupils to analyse the roles they take. I once observed a brilliant PG-CE student teach a "goldfish-bowl lesson", in which the pupils gathered round and watched four of their classmates in debate. They then discussed the roles and evaluated the group performance, offering suggestions. This approach brings a dramatic structure very effectively into the classroom and wet high-level skills, such as detailed observation, analysis and evaluation.

Ending the lesson

Current pedagogy is dominated by breaking learning down into manageable chunks, which makes it sound more like a tin of dog food. The traditional plenary may be like the gravy that moistens the meal but, for the teacher who values dramatic sequence, it's bland.

Conventionally, the plenary draws the threads together as pupils cum up what they have learned, in order to provide cloture. But that chokes off the learning experience. Instead, why not end on a cliffhanger and let pupils leave the room unsatisfied and curious about the next lesson?

Mercurio's Line of Duty has flourished owing to - rather than in spite of - the numerous loose ends that have kept fans speculating for years. But the latest series finale frustrated rather than fulfilled the expectations of his audience, which it a lesson for us all. As teachers, we need to make more of a flourish as we reach the conclusion of our scheme of work for the term. The grand finale of series one of Doctor Who resolved the dangers - and regenerated the Doctor. Pupils need a sense of satisfaction rather than lingering niggles.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Williams, Yvonne (2021-06-18). Get with the (TV) programme. Times Educational Supplement p. 17.
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  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Get with the (TV) programme | url= | work=Times Educational Supplement | pages=17 | date=2021-06-18 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 August 2022 }}</ref>
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