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Spring 2004

Talking Science

The Diary of a BBC Multimedia Producer

With an exciting new job awaiting her, BERRY BILLINGSLEY took her three Aussie children home to England. The day-by-day story of the week before she started work on a landmark multimedia science program for primary school children will ring bells with working mothers and teachers alike.

Berry Billingsley began her career with the BBC where she directed a special episode of Dr Who and then moved to Australia to work in children’s television. Berry has rejoined the BBC to take up the challenge of producing a landmark multimedia science resource for primary school students—or at least that was the challenge that she was expecting ...

Monday 16th

One suitcase and a couple of bags mainly filled with soft toys and the essential ‘train pillow’. It’s not much but it’s all I can carry. Say last goodbyes at the kids’ school. Agree I must be crazy to think we will survive 25 hours non-stop. Explain Tim (my husband) will be meeting us at London so just have to get through the flight. Sit in the plane at Melbourne for five hours, looking out of the window at the tarmac while the children watch all the movies and eat all the food. Five-year-old Harry offers to mend the fuel leak if they’d like. The offer is not taken up.

Tuesday 17th

Get off plane in Heathrow—head into airport, trying to control children and thanking fellow passengers who seem to have taken pity on me and are also calling my young hoodlums into line. Not even a school group, just my own three. No excuses, huh? Delighted to see Tim. Book into a hotel for one night. Tomorrow we move into our new rented flat.

Wednesday 18th

Windsor is so cold that my hands hurt if I leave them out of my pockets for more than five minutes. Check out of hotel. Put bags in boot and wave husband off to train. Discover we can’t move into our new flat because the inventory hasn’t been done yet. Spend most of the day in McDonalds trying to make each round of three (small greasy) apple pies last at least two hours. Go outside for ten minutes at a time, freeze and return. Get the shakes from drinking too much cheap coffee. Tim gets home, books us back into the hotel and we fall asleep at five pm.

Thursday 19th

Children wake up at three am. Try to keep them quiet (worry about people above, below and to each side). We drink up all the free cocoa sachets while watching BBC schools’ programs which are played through the night. The idea is that teachers will video them. Not bad, I think. Lots of real-world applications and fun for kids. I start work next week.

Monday 23rd

Children go for their first day at their new school. First shock. We were told that this school has a wonderful aftercare program by the school secretary … now we’ve bought the uniforms we discover that the places are filled and there’s a one-term waiting list. Thanks. We have an aftercare program but you can’t get onto it. Terrific. In two days time I begin my new job in London … except that I’ll need to be home in Windsor by three pm to pick up the kids. Great.

Leave the school office and rush to each kid’s classroom to make sure they’re all in the right places and settled.

Hannah’s classroom first. It’s 8.45 am. Three neat rows of girls and boys have taken their places quietly at their desks. Hannah (age 7) marches excitedly round the room pointing to the artwork on the walls, saying that she too has done a project about Saturn. I suddenly notice that she has a very loud shrill voice. Hannah’s teacher begins the lesson. She says (eyes barely raised to her class), ‘Go to the back of the classroom, get your worksheets out of the tray and carry on quietly’.

I hope Hannah settles in quickly. Actually that’s not quite it … I hope she settles down quickly. Spend the day worrying how they’re going and responding to ads placed by nannies in the local paper.

‘How was your day?’ I ask each kid delighted to see they still look chipper.

Sam (age 9) says, ‘I put my hand up to ask a question and the teacher told me to put it down again’.

‘Oh, I wonder why’, I say.

Sam says, ‘She said she prefers people not to ask questions because they’re usually silly ones’.

I’m beginning to form a picture of the style of education here.

Tuesday 24th

Find a nanny (she’s Polish and speaks no English). She comes with an interpreter to an interview and between them they convince me that our children will be escorted home from school each day and looked after in the flat. She can’t talk to the kids, but hey, her references check out and at this stage I’m not choosy and she can start Thursday.

Wednesday 25th

Parent-staff meeting in the evening. Feel very tense. The verdict on Hannah after three days: ‘We were in despair when she started but she’s settling now’, and of Sam: ‘He’s doing OK but he’s not very fast at copying from the board—he often has to stay into break time to get everything down’. We head home planning two major investments for the days ahead —new glasses to see board better and writing pens that enable fast writing.

Wednesday night: I sit in bed thinking about whether this move was a good idea. I’m excited about my job—which starts tomorrow—but will the kids be OK? Tim (half asleep) says he is happy and enjoying his work which is good, and he sees many benefits in giving them a ‘bit of a British education’.

I reflect that it’s not a bad education—it’s just a different education from the one they had in Australia. It’s focussed and rigorous and traditional. Our little Aussies are behind on many of the skills that their new schools require of them— paragraph indenting, times-tables, punctuation, joined-up writing … On the way home from school today I told them that this is because they have developed other talents to do with thinking and organising their own work, which the other children probably aren’t so good at. They tried to look convinced.

I decide that it’s a funny old world—literally. So many of the educational goals that I met in Australia are here too—there’s inclusion (ensuring that children with special educational needs feel included in ordinary schools) EAL (English as an additional language) literacy hours and numeracy challenges. There’s even talk of the need for teachers to strive for original and engaging ways to teach science. And yet the reality in the classroom (based on the small experience I’ve had here) is that the lessons focus on worksheets and board work. That means less group work, less independent thinking.

I muse that as long as exams can’t test for creativity, teamwork and thinking skills, it’s tricky to persuade the education system to embrace them. Fall asleep deciding that this really is too big a problem for me to solve tonight.

Thursday 26th

Today I start a new job at the BBC where I have been asked to produce a state of the art, distinctive, engaging, big-wow multimedia science resource for teachers and students at primary school. The idea is to capture the kids’ imaginations and show them that science is fun. This will be an online resource for use at home and in the classroom that dazzles, challenges and inspires. At least I feel there’s a need.

I sit on the train (it now takes me two hours to get to work) scheming up ways to get the children’s attention and keep them hooked from the beginning of each learning journey to the end. I visualise shots of football star Beckham sparring with newcomer Rooney over the best design of football boot (and then an explanation of friction and grip). I see dinosaurs marching across the landscape interspersed with discussions on bones and structure.

There will be fancy Flash games and video online and graphics and animations on computers and things to show on interactive whiteboards. There will be mysteries, games, songs. It will be all-singing, all-action all-colour … OK, you get the idea. The kids will love it! I pause to think about my own three small people in their own classroom a few miles away. I’m glad I will be bringing them such a rich multimedia experience, but I feel something else is needed. To really create excitement in the classes I’ve seen so far, the kids need to trade the time they spend filling in predictable clean worksheets for a bit more hands-on exploration.

I reflect again on the amazing content I hope to provide for children and decide that in addition to the fancy games and videos, I will also include recipes for slime and sherbet, plus things you can do with plastic beakers of water and red cabbage and bicarb and bugs. Yup, it’s my opinion that it’s about time some of these classrooms got a bit noisier and messier.

author picture Berry Billingsley is a broadcaster, education specialist and writer with a passion for science.