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How to get Stephen Fry to teach exam prep and Richard Dawkins to teach biology to your students

The Hay Festival has teamed up with TES to bring a series of short films to the classroom where celebrities and academics give micro-lectures on various topics. Here, Hay Festival director Peter Florence explains why this project has come about and how it started

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We’d invited Marcus du Sautoy, the superstar mathematician and University of Oxford professor, to talk about symmetry at the Hay Festival in May 2013. A friend of ours called Jonathan Godfrey, the principal of Hereford Sixth Form College, had been to university with Marcus and offered to pick him up. He did so in a mini bus full of A-level students.

On the way, Marcus asked the students what they were finding most difficult on the A-level syllabus, and when they told him it was trigonometry and logarithms, he gave them an informal masterclass tutorial. Those students all aced the exam the following week. 

The HayLevels is our attempt to replicate that back-of-the-bus access to Marcus and to extend it to a phenomenal team of great university teachers across the curriculum.  

It was clear that the next best thing to hiring more mini-buses was to create something intimate and direct online. We looked at Khan Academy and at TED and realised that three to four minutes was the ideal scale to give a nugget of insight that could support what the students already knew, and give them something valuable to add to their understanding and their essays and answers. 

We also looked at the best vloggers and YouTube stars, and wanted to capture some of that direct-to-camera, practical style that comes so easily to a generation who use Facetime, Skype, Snapchat and video messaging. This conversation is just for you, in your room. It’s not a mainstage show or a lecture-hall performance, it’s a personal moment with a teacher who wants you to succeed.

The festival has developed strong university partnerships over the last ten years, firstly with the University of Cambridge and the LSE, and most recently with the universities of Cardiff and Birmingham, both of which host public lecture series at the May festival, foregrounding their research work. 

We also partner with The Royal Society, which brings us Nobel laureates and the most brilliant of their young research Fellows with a specific remit to promote women in science. 

Knowing that we were bringing 50 or more academics to the big, nine-ring circus that is the Hay Festival in May, we asked them all if they’d take 10 minutes to record a micro-lecture on a subject requested by the students and staff at Hereford Sixth Form College. Everyone we asked said yes.  

We made 75 films in 2014, from history and physics to sociology and PSHE. Nick Stern gave a brilliant analysis of opportunity cost for economists; Sarah Churchwell explained the most misunderstood relationships in The Great Gatsby; Gabrielle Walker gave the most exquisite detail about the ice-core for geographers studying climate change; Richard Dawkins blasted out a ferociously articulate take-down of irreducible complexity for biologists and RE students. And any 16- or 17-year-old who gets to see Niall Ferguson’s three minutes on how to write an exam essay on the causes of the First World War will increase their grade and look forward to their next essay with delight.

When we launched the videos last autumn, we found that teachers wanted to use them in class throughout the year; those teachers also asked if we could film more on very specific topics. So this May we filmed another 90 videos, which will be released every week throughout this term. So if you want a moment of expert inspiration on the Big Bang or the slow thaw, the sensuality of the Romantic poets or the rise of Asian economies, if you want to know why Germaine Greer thinks Romeo’s a dork, what Tim Hunt loves about biology, or how Simon Schama writes a paragraph, please enjoy and share The Hay Levels on TES.

Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, Amanda Vickery, Tristram Hunt, Angie Hobbs, Simon Schama, Martin Rees, Helena Kennedy

Click here to access the Hay Levels on TES

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