July 01, 2003
Curriculum Bites on BBC3 TV – I'm impressed

I'm watching one of my new digital channels. In the top left corner there is the BBC logo, and wobbling about on top of it a blue and wobbling "C" in a green globule, if that helps at all. The channel is BBC3. I'm watching some things called "Curriculum Bites". This is not it, but it does look like stuff that is supposed to complement what I'm watching.

Two attractive but, it must be said, rather nerdy young people – an older brother and an older sister, you might say – are talking away about the periodic chart of the elements, and they're talking about atoms, outer electrons, sharing of electrons, covalence bonding, and similar things. It's presented as a Socratic dialogue, with a pupil asking instantly intelligent and pertinent questions, and with a teacher (the same age) answering these questions, sometimes preceding his answers with phrases like: "Good question." As the lesson is expounded, the pupil repeats the lesson in slightly different words, to drive the point home. "So, when an electron … blah blah blah." "Yes. That's right. You've got it."

"Hang on . You're going to have to go through that again."

I'm interested that everything is right. These are totally artificial conversations, just begging to be lampooned by the comedians. No mistakes are made, and corrected. I guess that would be confusing, and the viewers might memorise the mistakes. Makes sense.

Behind the young people, the periodic chart itself swirls about, and whenever they have things to say, about, say, all the metals (to the left – I had no idea there were so many) and all the non-metals, the periodic chart emphasises the line dividing the two clumps, and colours change according to what generalisations are being made about which elements. Occasionally, the graphics are replaced by imagery of actual chemical reactions in action. Also, in front of the young people, animated particles swirl about, like magical weightless billiard balls bobbing about in the air, and doing the things that electrons do.

Well, as you can tell, they lost me ten minutes ago. I don't really get all of what they are saying. That I get any of it at all is probably because I was taught some of this stuff forty years ago, by the old fashioned methods not involving TV sets.

Several things impress me about all this.

First, as already said, good use is being made of computer graphics.

Second, thank goodness for the now universal ability of everyone to record material like this, and play it back again and again, with lots of pausing.

Third, making use of the second point, they don't waste time with gobs of dead time. What I have in mind here is the infuriating tendency of more mainstream documentaries to say something, but then to stop for a few seconds and have a stupid picture of our compere driving his car to some important place where someone he wants to talk to lives or works, as if looking at the scenery near where this person lives will somehow help us to understand what he thinks. It won't. This is just slowing things down for the sake of it, in case we get lost.

But in these Curriculum Bites, they don't faff about. They talk, and talk continuously. If you couldn't play it back again, or make these frighteningly well informed and fluent young people pause in their explications, you'd be lost in no time. But of course you can repeat, and you can pause.

The amount of stuff they're getting through per ten minutes is phenomenal. One DVD – and there have to be DVDs – of these Curriculum Bites would contain a vast amount of material. As I've been typing this out there must have been about seven or eight of these little lessons, each of which seems to last about five minutes (and each of which, as I say, communicates as much as the average 45 minute documentary). So if you want to learn chemistry, or science of any kind, it has recently been getting a whole lot easier.

If say, a oldish teenager were to be thoroughly on top of all this stuff, he'd be at least as good at science as I was at that age. If you had all this, and a rather crummy science teacher, that would be the equivalent of having just a good teacher, of the sort I presumably had, but maybe did not. (How do I know?)

It is routine in my part of the blogosphere to denounce the BBC and all its works. But the BBC is a big sprawl of activities and entertainments, many of which are outstanding. Like, it seems to me, these televised Curriculum Bites.

(Instapundit, another favorite of mine for political reasons, made a similar point - but sorry, can't find when - about another Big Media organ much criticised by my favourite pundits, the New York Times. The NYT, said the Big I, has outstanding science and technology coverage.)

Most of the Children's Educational TV I've ever watched until now has been waffly, patronising, uninformative (and probably deeply misleading) nonsense. It's been shot through with the notion that the one thing that teachers should never ever do is teach. But these people are teaching, teaching, teaching, at a rate I've never witnessed before.

I'm very impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 PM
Category: Technology