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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jamie Oliver’s Dream School – a Channel 4 media fest or relevant lessons in communication and motivation?

This week sees the start of Channel 4's Dream School, Jamie Oliver’s new television project. Celebrities with a particular subject expertise chance their arm in the classroom. For a while, it will put education on the front burner to compete against the Arab revolt and Coalition politics.

The assumption is that the hitherto poorly-motivated students, will experience a Damascene conversion as well-known experts from a wide spectrum of achievement, parade their wares and instructional skills.

Of course, the project is an artificial one, as the presence of cameras, celebrity teachers and being made a fuss of all kick in.

Nevertheless, the enterprise is worth a second take. It enables us to reflect on what actually constitutes good teaching in the first place. Commentators and reviewers usually deliver their critiques after the programmes have been shown, but bucking the trend here is an unscientific checklist, that we might have to hand as we view from the couch.

Communication is at the heart of good teaching, so how will our celebs perform? Do they have an interesting voice and presence? Do they use the space around them? Can we visualise them delivering 30 sessions a week?

Teaching some Economics ages ago, and not being particularly on top of the subject - even though I had been in The City - I had to go the extra mile in grasping the topics myself. I am sure this enabled a more sympathetic view of what the learners were experiencing and a more thoughtful insight in my preparation. The question before our celeb list of Dr Starkey, Alastair Campbell, Ellen MacArthur and others is quite simply “ What's in it for the students and what are they doing?” It is no good having expertise - the key skill is empathy for the perspective of the learner.

Many students don’t ask questions because they don’t know what they don’t know, and our celebs will have to cover this shortfall. Visual aids,relevant language as well as an understanding that we learn in different ways complete the picture.

Michael Gove is in uncertain waters creating a coherent policy out of academies, free schools, the use of ex-military staff on the payroll and the revelations of Ms Birbalsingh.

The punchline is that memorable teachers were ones with personality and charisma. They were ones who bucked the system and took risks. They have been squeezed out by the treadmill of assessment, clonal lesson structures and the devaluation of grades. It explains why we have such sterile teaching and alienated learners. If Oliver’s series exposes this, then it is to be applauded.

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