Gripped by the script

For many teachers, the very idea of scripted lessons can make them feel uncomfortable. But we need to get over that, according to Mark Enser, and realise that it is not just a better way of teaching but a more enjoyable one, too – for teachers and students alike
31st August 2018, 12:00am
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Gripped by the script

For a while now, my lessons have had a certain rhythm to them.

They start with a short quiz to recap what the students have previously learned and to link past lessons to the one we are sitting in. I then go through the answers and draw attention to common misconceptions and likely errors.

Next it is time for some “input”: an explanation from me on the topic of the lesson. As a geography teacher, I’m likely to include case studies and examples from around the world, as well as using analogies and stories to bring the subject to life and make it memorable. There will be questions and discussions throughout this before the students go on to complete an activity or series of activities. I end with feedback.

So far, so usual, you might think. Most teachers will be familiar with such a structure: recap, input, application, feedback.

But what is different about my lessons, compared with many others, is just how much of what I do in that classroom is now scripted.

And I believe that scripting lessons is something every teacher should be doing, not just because it is the most effective way to teach, but because it is the most enjoyable way to teach, too.

I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath: the idea of scripting a lesson is controversial for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it conjures up an image of an under-qualified teacher simply standing in front of the class and reading out a pre-prepared statement that they dare not deviate from. This image is rooted in the fact that we usually come across the idea of a script in the context of actors delivering lines. It can be difficult to imagine how scripts would translate to a classroom, where the majority of people involved (the pupils) will be improvising.

Secondly, scripting a lesson appears to go against everything we thought we knew - and were told - about teaching, particularly during our training. What was important was what the children were doing, not necessarily what we were saying. Teacher talk had to be minimised, so there was little to script anyway. As history teacher and senior leader Ben Newmark says: “When I began teaching, it would never have occurred to me to plan explanations, as I’d been conditioned to believe I shouldn’t be doing it at all. Now I’d say it takes up most of my planning time.”

Likewise, English teacher and education writer Andy Tharby, who is currently writing a book on effective teacher explanation, says that when he started out he “would worry about the content and sequencing of the tasks and activities - often with the aim of ‘engaging’ the students more than anything else”.

“These days,” he says, “I worry more about the content and sequencing of the material-to-be-learned.”

And lastly, there is an element of professional pride that works its way into the fury over scripting. Those of us who script believe that these scripts can be shared, with one teacher using a script produced by another. To some, that thought is horrifying. What about teacher style, tone, choice? What about the differences in the students that may be sat in front of them? And is it not taking away responsibility for a huge part of what a teacher is supposed to be devising for themselves? Is it not prescribing something that should, in fact, be born through the alchemy of teacher, students, situation, knowledge and “the moment”?

But those teachers who use scripts don’t do so in the way you may imagine.

Rather than lines that are read out, it usually means a practised and well-planned explanation, delivered with notes and with pre-set and thought-through questions for the “audience”. It’s less theatre stage, more TED Talk.

And although the questions around teacher talk, around the teaching moment and about how we should teach to the children in front of us are interesting, I believe they are not the death knell for scripting many believe them to be. Why? Let me tell you how I fell in love with scripting, and all will become clear.

When I started teaching, I gave a lot less thought to how I was going to explain something: I was keen to move quickly to an activity that my pupils could be getting on with. I would think something along the lines of, “Here is where I will explain the atmospheric model,” and then when I came to do it, I would realise that I really wasn’t sure how to do it well. I knew what I was talking about, sure - but it felt as though I were busking it.

For a while, that was simply how I thought teaching had to be, but then I began to realise that this made the experience of teaching much more stressful than it needed to be. I also discovered that the anxiety of starting an explanation that I didn’t know how to finish would mean less effective teaching: the words would come out in a rush as I tried to get to the point where I could stop talking and get the students working.

These moments of clarity arose for a variety of reasons. I was lucky enough to observe some really excellent teachers whose explanations made the subject come alive. They had clearly given them a great deal of thought. And then I read Theory of Instruction by Siegfried Engelmann and Douglas Carnine, Mining for Gold by Fergal Roche and “The principles of direct instruction” by Barak Rosenshine. All, in their own way, demonstrate that well-planned, well-executed explanations that are scripted and delivered using prompts make for effective teaching.

Engelmann is probably the best known proponent of scripted lessons, and these scripts are an important feature of his direct instruction teaching method. In this method, the teacher uses visual aids along with a script to deliver their lesson. This script contains a carefully sequenced explanation alongside questions and prompts to use.

These scripts have been tried and tested to ensure that they maximise learning and minimise any confusion. This forms the backbone of the lesson that the teacher can then improvise around as they respond to their pupils.

This method of teaching has been found to be highly effective. Project Follow Through ran in the US between 1968 and 1977. It tracked the academic performance of pupils through the school system as they followed different styles of education. Those following Engelmann’s direct instruction method had significantly higher outcomes than those following any other programme. Importantly, they also reported higher levels of self-esteem and confidence.

In Roche’s book, he reflects on the great teachers he has encountered, many of whom were excellent at explaining their subject and went to class with handfuls of notes to aid them.

Finally, Rosenshine’s research found that the most effective teachers spoke for a total of 23 minutes over a 40-minute lesson (the least effective only spoke for 11 minutes).

However, for an explanation to be memorable it needed to be well-planned, with analogies and examples and with well-thought-out questions. In short, it would benefit from being scripted.

So, I knew I wanted to script more - that scripting more would be beneficial to my pupils. That scripting would also help me to teach better, and, therefore, enable me to enjoy my teaching more.

And yet, that does not mean I knew how to script. Not all explanations are equal. A good script should make a topic come alive, involve questions to targeted pupils, help pupils develop their understanding and be rich with examples and analogies. Bad scripts are an uncomfortable, claustrophobic and self-indulgent monologue.

I soon found that the most effective method for me was to keep a notebook open when planning a lesson and write down things like the key concepts I wanted to keep returning to, the examples I wanted to use and key questions I needed to ask.

This became my script. And over the course of lessons it would be honed through the interactions and experiences with students. As I became better at it, I got my script writing into a pattern that looks a bit like this:

Step 1: Pick out the key points

I start the script by being very clear about what I expect pupils to remember from the explanation. An explanation on the challenges facing people in Lagos might include the fact that 2,000 people per day are moving to the city, that the shanty town of Makoko started as a fishing community and that water is often bought from vendors with access to a borehole. I highlight these points in my notes to remind me to return to them frequently and emphasise them.

Step 2: Use analogies and examples

Analogies and examples help to bring an explanation to life, and enable pupils to take something unfamiliar and relate it to something they know about. Air moves from high pressure to low pressure like air rushing out of a balloon; ice expands and cracks rocks the same way a water bottle can distort if you fill it up and leave it in the freezer; globalisation means more if you relate it to the shoes they are wearing.

The joy of scripting is that you can plan these analogies in advance and share the ones that have been effective.

Step 3: Embrace the whiteboard

The principle of dual-coding is that we can take information in both audibly and visually, and that combining the two makes the information more memorable. I plan to incorporate images into any scripted explanation and draw diagrams on the whiteboard as I talk. These can also be left for pupils to refer back to as they work later in the lesson.

Step 4: Target questions

Despite what some people think, a scripted explanation need not be a long monologue. Scripting out your explanation also gives you the opportunity to plan in excellent questions at the correct point to maximise their impact. You can plan in follow-up questions that will deepen pupils’ understanding or help them to link together different ideas. These can also allow you to check for understanding and refocus attention on those key points you want them to remember.

I expected that I would need to vary my scripts for different classes, but this has not been the case. All pupils are learning the same curriculum and the same script lies behind each lesson. What I do is adapt and improvise around the core script to suit the audience.

I recognise that some may see this formula and argue that even if it is more effective, it must be less enjoyable for both teacher and student. That’s not the case at all.

Scripting makes teaching more enjoyable. The classroom is a calmer and more focused place, and I find that I don’t have to run around the room as much to address the misconceptions that arise from a poor explanation. I spend more time at the front of the classroom talking, but I am doing so in a more engaging way.

As for my pupils, they are learning more and they are voting with their feet: our option numbers at both GCSE and A level are up. Everyone seems happier.

But what of the concern that scripting could lead to the deprofessionalising of teaching, with unqualified staff reading an autocue and asking predetermined questions? I would argue that using the script of another teacher is no different to using their worksheet, textbook or activity idea. It is what we then do with it that will always take professional judgement and skill.

And finally, what of the workload involved in creating all these scripts? Here, at least, there must be a cost?

Well yes, I do spend more time planning my lessons, but this has always been the part of the job I enjoy the most. I spend a lot less time wracking my brains trying to think up a range of activities or preparing resources. I also spend a lot less time marking because there are far fewer errors. The original explanation was clearer and so mistakes weren’t made.

I long for the day when we simply accept that this is a more effective, efficient and enjoyable method of teaching.

I want to see teachers asking if anyone has an excellent explanation they can share on an aspect of their subject. I want to see more time given in CPD and initial teacher training to creating memorable explanations, and departments sitting down together to plan out and share their scripts for the week to come. I want to see teachers get over this odd aversion to simply being better prepared for a lesson.

Writing a script to help with our explanation should be no different to carefully planning the resources we want our pupils to use for an activity, and using a script from another teacher should be no different to using a resource they have created. Collaborating and sharing our expertise doesn’t undermine us as professionals. It is what professionals do.

Mark Enser is head of research at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is soon to be published by Crown House

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