The power of podcasts to engage pupils

Lend me your ears... David Robinson explains why podcasts are a great tool for engaging students in a raft of subject areas - and suggests numerous series to get you started

David Robinson

Coronavirus: How to create your own in-school teacher CPD podcast

Although the scale of our current crisis is unprecedented, there have actually been extended school closures on several occasions in the past.

In 1937, Chicago Public Schools postponed the school year due to polio outbreaks while schools in Liberia, Sierra Leone and many other African countries were closed during the Ebola outbreak in 2018.

In both cases, schools turned to radio instruction as a means to support students unable to attend school, with some evidence to suggest these were relatively successful interventions.

We may scoff that radio has a role to play when compared to our whizzy new tech platforms, yet the use of audio content has swelled enormously in the past decade among adults as both a form of leisure and learning, chiefly via podcasts.

Despite this, as ed-tech entrepreneur Donald Clarke has noted, “online learning seems to ignore that simple, popular, single-channel medium – the podcast.”

The simplicity of the medium of podcasts can allow teachers to concentrate on quality content rather than complex and distracting tech platforms.

Instead, many teachers have been focused on creating video content, which is both time-consuming to record and edit and usually consists of extended close-ups of talking faces.

While there may be therapeutic benefits to seeing your teacher’s face when stuck at home, there does not appear to be any pedagogical advantage to perusing each other’s bookshelves and facemask-induced acne.

Furthermore, with 'screen time' and 'Zoom fatigue' becoming everyday expressions, many of us are feeling the need to pull back from video as a delivery system.

International schools should use this crisis to encourage students and parents to engage with the wealth of audio content that is readily available to them, wherever they are in the world.

This could be by using a podcast in a lesson supported by a quiz or as a lead into group discussions or research projects.

Students might use listening time to practice note-taking, create mind maps or simply to doodle along.

Furthermore, many students are unable to access books for personal reading at home or maybe struggling to read independently – especially EAL learners with no English speaker at home.

A fantastic way to connect

Audiobooks and story podcasts are a fantastic way to connect with these learners. I’m sure I can’t be alone in having been an avid listener to story tapes when I was young (anyone else remember Storyteller?), yet many students and parents may not be aware that this resource is an option.

Others may think that audiobooks are cheating compared to "proper" reading, but psychologist Daniel Willingham has stated that: “For most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing”.

English teacher Michael Godsey has found teaching with podcasts such as Radiolab and This American Life has encouraged students to read more books and helped with general literacy skills.

From listening to podcasts, the next step for staff and students might be to create their own, which can be surprisingly easy when done remotely.

My own students were able to record their own radio dramas earlier in the year adapted from short stories. Simple audio readings of poems and speeches were far more effective than slow and clunky visual presentations and uninspiring videos of their bedroom walls.

It certainly helps if teachers can model responses for these first, but students who might be shy on camera seem to be more willing to share audio responses.

NPR has produced some great resources to support teachers with this and the Anchor app is a free, easy to use tool for recording and editing audio, even remotely.

Great podcasts for schools

  • BBC Schools Radio has some great content suitable for distance learning including adaptations of popular Shakespeare plays, Michael Morpurgo and Dickens.
  • National Geographic’s Greeking Out series offers fun versions of Greek myths.
  • The Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls has some excellent introductions to important women from around the world –  from Wangaari Maathai to Ada Lovelace – read by public figures such as Jameela Jamil and Priscilla Chan. My daughter and I enjoyed the episode on the Mirrabel Sisters especially.
  • The Australian Short and Curly podcast is an engaging and lively introduction to critical thinking and philosophy which is perfect as PSHE or P4C sessions, with topics such as “When should you stop being friends with someone?” and “Can robot soldiers make armies better?”.
  • Greg Jenner, consultant on the Horrible Histories TV series, has two great history-based podcast series. Homeschool History, for younger listeners, includes well-known British topics such as the Battle of Hastings and Florence Nightingale, as well as more international ones such as Qin Shi Huang and Mansa Musa. For older listeners, You’re Dead to Me includes discussion on Mary Shelley, the Mughal Empire and more.
  • There are several good podcasts dedicated to investigating younger children’s curious questions about scientific and STEAM topics such as But Why from Vermont, Wow in the World and the new British podcast Maddie’s Sound Explorers

  • For music, there is a great series of podcasts from Classic FM presented by comedian David Walliams introducing not only Mozart and Beethoven but also less well-known composers such as Clara Schumann and Ethel Smyth in a comedic style. There are also playlists of music linked to the shows available on Apple Music and Spotify.

  • My school in Hong Kong is a part of Nord Anglia network of schools who have recently produced their own podcast, A Little Bit of Genius, which features student-led interviews with world-leading experts in their fields including Malala’s favourite author Deborah Ellis and Lord Puttnam.

David Robinson is an English and humanities teacher at Nord Anglia International School in Hong Kong. He has taught internationally for 14 years

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