A script in time saves mime

Most everything exists on a spectrum.

Some spectra, for example light, are easily described and replicated. If you want light of a particular colour all you have to do is know its wavelength and bingo, there it is. Of course, two different people who look at the same colour may perceive it in different ways but that’s another story.

Other spectra, happiness, for example, are less easily described and even more differently perceived. Describing someone else’s state of happiness to two different people is fraught with difficulty.

And so, it seems, is ‘script’. Especially as it pertains to teaching.

Some use the term in its literal sense, a written script of what to say in a lesson, which cannot be deviated from. This puts it directly into the Direct Instruction camp. And people seem to have quite definite views about DI.

Some use it in the sense of a script for a lesson that has been provided by some one else. Akin to a bought in set of resources with a very detailed set of lesson plans.

Some use it in the sense of a detailed lesson plan that someone has produced for themselves.

Me? Well I’m all over the place. See, I wasn’t aware there was an internationally recognised education definition of the word ‘script’. I use it contextually. So a DI lesson requires a script. A detailed lesson plan is a script for the lesson. If I’ve thought through what I intend to say and generally say the same thing, then that’s a script. The level of detail and mutability of the script derives from the context.

This use comes from computer programming where the script is a series of instructions for a machine to carry out. And depending on where you are in the programming cycle this script can be of varying levels of detail. But I can see that approach does have its problems. So in this post I am going to try and stick to using the word script by its dictionary definition which, to paraphrase, is something like “a written text of a play, film or broadcast”. I am going to caveat that a little though because I think length is important. It may be, for example, that a number of small sections of a lesson are scripted. Indeed, in some subject areas this can be important to ensure the correct thing is learnt. If I use four or five of these smaller scripts (to use computer programming jargon again, ‘scriptlets’) is the lesson scripted or not.

Anyway, that’s not the main issue for me here.

One of the things that made me write this was Chris Chivers blog post on the difference between a “script writer” and a “director of studies” (his terms). Also, to be clear, this isn’t a critique of Chris’ post, it just got me thinking.

Usually the main objection to the idea of scripting of lessons is the obvious one. What happens if the teacher needs to veer off in response to something that happened in the lesson that wasn’t covered by the script? What supporters of DI would say to this is that the lesson scripts have been perfected over time and have responded to hundreds of such ‘incidents’ until the likelihood of such an interruption being necessary is very small. Now I think a teachers response to this would usually depend on their subject and phase. I suspect most early years and primary teachers would just laugh. Secondary Arts and Humanities teachers would in the main look at you with a raised eyebrows. Maths teachers would say “Yeah, I can see that might work.” Again, a spectrum.

Now, I’m not going to argue here that DI is the solution to any identified problem. I think we are a long way away from that. I do think some of the fears raised about it relate more to the form of organisation that would encourage it (cough, Bridge International) than it is to the reality of its use in the classroom. And these are reasonable fears in the current climate.

But what I wanted to say was more about scripts. The argument more often given against scripts themselves is that one of “it not being responsive to my students needs”. And this is where I diverge from most people, and also from Chris’ contention about the need to be nimble on your feet within the lesson (well obviously you do, but read on).

There are two things here, the knowledge you have of your students, and the length of a lesson.

I was a maths teacher. At the start of the year I mostly didn’t know any of the students I taught, their strengths and weaknesses, their presence in the classroom. So going into that first lesson with a script for the entire lesson would probably have been self-defeating. But as I got to know them I would have a clear understanding before I went into the room exactly how far I could take them in that 60 minutes on a particular topic. I’d know who would be ahead of me, who would be behind and how would likely be creating cos it was “just too hard”. I could have scripted the lesson in advance. I certainly would have run through in my head what I was going to say at any point. How different is that from a script? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said “Before you can add the fractions to need to make sure the numbers on the bottom are the same”. How is that not a script?

Most lessons I’ve seen at secondary range in length from 35 to 60 minutes. The most frequently observed (by me) is 40-45. Give them 5 minutes to get there and get settled and a couple of minutes for you to finish up and get them out and you’re talking about 33 to 40 minutes in most cases. In a maths lesson you need to be leaving at least half of that for practice, so we’re down to 16 to 20 miuntes (and please don’t make this a discussion about squashing teacher talk).

So a question I have is this. If you are continually diverging from the planned content in such a short period of time how much of the content is ending up where you intended it to be, i.e., in the students heads?

I think there needs to be a balance between responsive teaching and coherent presentation of a discrete piece of content. As a teacher I should be able to come into the room with script (or series of scriptlets) and deliver that script and respond along the way where my students need a different response to the script. I should know my students well enough to have created a script to meet their needs.

So the spectrum is this. At one end is the teacher who walks into a classroom not having any idea what they are going to teach. I would suggest that as soon as you move away from this end of the spectrum some of what you do could be classified(using my laissez faire approach) as scripted. At the other end is the teacher who walks into the classroom with every word they intend to utter already scripted by someone else, from which there will be no deviation.

In reality (outside of research projects) I doubt either of these extremes actually exists.

I see many more benefits to scripting in the sense I have described that I do drawbacks. Does it play into those who would argue for less qualified teachers? Perhaps it does, but that should not be used as a reason to shun an approach that can help teachers and their students.