February 17, 2015

Cliffhanger learning #28daysofwriting

Television drama's whole point is to bring you through an often slow start, followed by a complex development to a point where there are two or three potential dénouements before, "Cut!", it is the end of the episode and you will have to await the "right answer" in the following week's show.

This post came to me at 10pm last night, on Day 16 of this challenge, after a day of holidaying in London and with my head (and feet) too weary to put finger to touchscreen.

Mrs Mc and I had just watched another live instalment of Broadchurch, murder mystery extraordinaire, particularly since in the second series there is no actual fresh murder to investigate. The verdict is about to be given on the accused killer from Series 1 when the inevitable happens... Cue title music.

This moment has even gained a moniker in British homes, based on the theme tune to the real masters of the four-times-a-week cliffhanger, London-based soap opera Eastenders. It's call a "ba...ba...ba...ba, ba, ba-ba-ba-ba" (YouTube will provide overseas readers with auditory explanation).

Eastenders is such a master of writing in the perfect pace that every 28 minute episode ends with a tantalising screen freeze on the latest shocked face / smirking baddy / confused victim. For really big stories the cliffhanger can last significantly longer. This week, to celebrate the show's 30 year birthday, we will finally find out the answer to a question unanswered for the past 14 months: "Who killed Lucy Beale?"

Now, most classrooms do not involve murder, incest, dodgy deals and danger, but "good teaching" encourages a type of pacing that totally ignores the ingredients that have millions in the edges of their seats every day: the good old cliffhanger. In fact, we see teachers giving away the punchline at the beginning: "Today we are learning this:..."

Just because we tell kids "we are learning" does not mean they will learn it. But the ingredients of good drama can also be found research on what makes good learning:

1. Provocation
Edward de Bono's work takes precisely five pages to talk about the importance of provocation to help the learner learn deeply about an issue or concept and the related tangents ("Lateral Thinking"; "Mechanism of the Mind"). In my team's experience, the intrigue provides enough of an "after-burner" of interest to push the learner deep enough into learning new concepts and ideas that the inherent interest in the content can be discovered.

2. Not planning "a lesson"
In most classrooms, still, we see teachers planning the days before for one lesson at a time, and it is no wonder that learning feels chunked up to the point it is no longer recognisable in its original form. This runs against what David Perkins calls "Making Learning Whole". Making learning whole means that we think of learning like a long, 12 or 16 part drama, and build our story on that long line rather than the minutiae of each lesson. Then, in terms of the detail, we write in the 2 minute catchups from the last episode, the beginnings and, crucially, the structured cliffhangers to retain interest until the next lesson / episode. If you're planning one lesson at a time instead of thinking about the long line of learning this is impossible to achieve.

There you go. 28 minutes is up and a small provocation, I hope, to inspire some different types of planning. Get some more ideas on how to plan that stuff on the NoTosh Lab: http://www.notosh.com/lab


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Great post. Completely agree about the 'planning in lessons' idea that we need to try and move away from. Of course, the obvious extension of that is to stop trying to put everything in hour long boxes...

For me, Learning Objectives is a classic example of a piece of research getting mangled by a system which wanted to be able to tick it off a list. From memory, I think it concluded something like students achieved better outcomes (Just deleted 'learned better') if they understood the context of what they were doing. This then became 'tell them what they're going to learn' and lo and behold, the magic was banned.

A feel today's blog post coming on...

Hope you're enjoying the holiday :)

I think I taught the best subject in the world. Think of the joy of knowing that a new class was about to discover Hamlet, or Journey's End, or - a story you introduced me to - Through the Tunnel for themselves! The only advance planning was my own extensive knowledge of the text and my understanding of the pupils/group dynamic, and I used to look forward to finding out where we'd go with the text every time I taught it. My reward was being told later by pupils that I'd showed them "how" rather than just "what".

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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