Focuse d group

24th October 2003 at 01:00
TV programme making is a powerful teaching tool in science and citizenship. Kathy Miller reports

Sssh, don't tell the BBC, but the people who learn the most from a television programme are those who make it, rather than the people who watch it.

So say former BBC producers Hendrik Ball and Jon Cardus, the founding directors of Digitalsavvy, a teaching resource company that is taking television programme-making into science and geography classes and motivating even the most disaffected. The Digitalsavvy philosophy is simple: children are "commissioned" to make a short film on a topic chosen from their syllabus, using widely-available, affordable computer technology and combining it with basic TV production processes - research, filming, scripting and editing.

Pupils usually work in teams of eight, each taking a role that brings out their individual talents as writers, technicians and "ideas" people.

However, there is no room for students who like to mess about; academic and editorial standards have to be high as the finished product is broadcast to the rest of the class and sometimes to other schools. The business of producing encourages them to think, analyse, discuss and argue, often with surprisingly imaginative results on screen.

"This," says Jon Cardus, who was a science teacher before joining the BBC, "is extremely empowering, because it allows students to assume control and gives them accountability. And showing your own film is much more fun than pinning an essay on the noticeboard."

One teacher who has first-hand experience of the way in which broadcast exposure acts as both carrot and stick, is Mark Hitch, deputy head and advanced skills teacher at Humphrey Perkins High School in Burrow-upon-Soar, Leicestershire. He spent two years videoing and taking digital stills of school science experiments, before compiling a CD-Rom for his pupils for revision at home. For one particular group, he went one stage further by devising interactive worksheets to minimise their written work.

The results, even for an optimistic teacher such as Mark Hitch, were breathtaking: out of a 12-strong group of "very challenging boys", two of whom had been suspended and all of whom had been predicted to get E or F grades, half achieved C in GCSE science. "These lads were in a sink group," says Mark Hitch. "But this process had a real effect on them. Boys especially like practical work in the lab and understand the science, but they 'lose it' in writing-up. This way, they went seamlessly from the lab to the computer room and back to hands-on work in the lab."

The Digitalsavvy experience has already come to the notice of Norfolk's Learning and Skills Council, which is funding a pilot scheme in collaborative working between three schools in the county. The aim is for key stage 4 science and citizenship students from the three institutions to produce 18 short documentaries on the scientific, social and political implications of local energy processes. Video clips and specially shot film (often from areas that are "no-go" to the public) produced by Digitalsavvy provides the starting-point, complemented by a list of useful web addresses. After that, the content is up to the students. Thus far, the pupils have explored fermentation at Adnams Brewery in Southwold, the use of poultry litter as an electricity generator at Fibrothetford waste energy power station, nuclear power from Sizewell B and wind turbines at Blood Hill wind farm.

Digitalsavvy has arranged for an expert from each organisation to be questioned by a student via videoconferencing and once the films are finished, it will set up a video link between the three participating schools.

Kris Smith, head of physics at Fakenham High School and College, one of the three participating schools, is already impressed with the way his students have embraced the concept, which he says "presents exciting opportunities, even for disruptive kids". He argues that most modern children are generally comfortable with the sort of computer required for digital editing and that "even those who are not turned on by the subject matter are encouraged to get into it by using cutting-edge technology. Above all, making a video gets them to learn surreptitiously," he says.

Kris Smith admires the way that Digitalsavvy provides access to otherwise elusive people and source material, as well as "a clear idea of the practicalities of teaching". Keen to see this method of working spread throughout the curriculum, he is already liaising with the school's media studies department and has arranged for his less techno-minded colleagues to be trained in the use of the necessary software.

Not every child will turn out to be a future Attenborough, but Digitalsavvy's Hendrik Ball believes that getting to grips with basic programme-making skills allows young learners to "dovetail the know-what with the know-how and make the knowledge they acquire stick far more effectively".

Digitalsavvy and Skills Council

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