Learning lessons from cult TV series

Tougher Minds Head of Education Andrew Foster believes the growing trend of watching boxsets and TV series in one sitting, illustrates the need for different approach to learning.

I’ll say one thing for Walter White – he demonstrated continued professional development. Even Ofsted would have had to realise that here was one teacher that wasn’t prepared to coast.

The fictional drug-lord has become one of TV’s great anti-heroes, as beloved in his own way as Mr Chips. The series he featured in, Breaking Bad, has helped make “binge-watch” the Collins Dictionary word of the year.

The nature of these shows – House of Cards, Homeland, Game of Thrones and the rest – has resulted in a new culture of consuming hour after hour of the same programme. Imagine if we could get our pupils to pay similar levels of attention to their studies.

Breaking Bad lead character Walter White.

Breaking Bad lead character Walter White.

This is a problem teachers face, that I have dubbed for some time the “Sopranos Dilemma”. Children expect their lessons to be sequential and my experience is that many departments’ schemes of work at schools around the country only provide confirmation.

“We’ve done this!” is the cry if they see material that they recall from a previous lesson. The best way to watch the Sopranos is to watch Season 1, episode 1 and then Season 1, episode 2, all the way through to season 6 episode 21.

This may be an optimal approach for entertainment but not for learning and we must educate our pupils as to this. They should not be disappointed when we present them with material they remember but welcome it as an opportunity to secure learning that is successfully underway but unlikely to be complete.

Neuroscience shows us that the brain craves novelty. It registers seeing something as the same as learning it. But we must revisit material if we are to be able to recall it with confidence when required. How many car number-plates have we seen in our lives? How many do we recall? Only those that we have seen and paid attention repeatedly.

Half term means that I have not had contact time with the pupils at QK for two weeks. That is more than long enough to forget a great deal.

My response was to re-visit the taught material but to change the format. I saw each pupil for less time, but either on their own or in a pair. This allowed us to check knowledge and understanding, clarify each where necessary and for me to learn more about the personal ambitions of each child and the way they each was going about using Tougher Minds techniques to improve their learning. Pupils reported enjoying the opportunity to learn through sustained dialogue in this way.

We don’t need to see the Sopranos or Breaking Bad multiple times because our aim is not to learn it. The nature of learning means that it will not always be uniformly enjoyable. But we can narrow the gap between our most and least engaging lessons by injecting novelty through our approach when we know that the content has been seen before.

Enjoy your boxsets. They are often a good source of conversation with pupils, who may well surprise with their sophisticated interpretations for characters and developments. But do not feel you need to replicate their relentless onward march.

Sometimes we need to take a step back in order to go forward.

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