A little while back I was observed teaching my year 10s about the development of the periodic table and Mendeleev’s contributions. As per usual, I explained a bit, the students did some work, we went over their work, then I explained some more. I used diagrams, tables and pictures to aid my explanations.

In the post-obs feedback, the observer said to me that at a certain point in the slides there had been a link to a video, and it was a “shame” that I hadn’t used it. The lesson would have been better if I had have used the video.

This memory came back to me recently when the shoe was on the other foot: I was observing someone else. As part of their instruction they used an educational video and, in my opinion, it’s a shame that they did use it.

***

When I trained I was told to give students some questions to think about or answer whilst the video was playing. This was all part of “active learning” generally, and was sold to me as promoting “active listening” particularly. The teacher I was observing had done exactly the same and put three questions in a little box underneath the video. I pointed out that there was a serious problem with the split attention effect here. Without getting too far into the details of the effect, imagine yourself as a student watching the video, trying to concentrate on 1) the things being said in the video 2) the three fairly wordy questions and 3) trying to identify which of the three questions a particular video segment relates to. If that wasn’t enough, think of the additional burden from having done all of the above, and then realising that one and half minutes from the video have completely passed you by whilst you were trying to answer the questions. The demands of the task are just too high: no learning occurs.

So let’s say we ditched the whole active listening thing and just played the video without any questions. Would that be a good idea?

***

As I watched the video playing out in that lesson, I realised why I had subconsciously ditched the videos from a bunch of my lessons: because they just aren’t that good at explaining things. The videos move fast, they cover a lot of material, it isn’t always sequenced appropriately, there isn’t time to practice, and – perhaps worst of all – they cover a lot of material which I’m not even going to be teaching. I say this is worst of all because lessons should be content-led not resource-led. The whole point of your lesson is to teach specific content. If you have a video which deals with a bunch of stuff which isn’t that content, you are using it because it is a cool resource, not because it is the best way to deliver your content.

Videos have a great advantage in their use of dynamic graphics and diagrams. But even here you often see distracting images or animations that don’t add anything to the descriptions or explanations in the video and just serve to divert students’ attention away from your specific content. An expert teacher might instead take an image, beam it onto the board and talk through it slowly and deliberately, focussing their students’ attention and peppering them with questions. Early in my career, I couldn’t do this – or at least had never realised it was a desirable option. Now I can do this, and I think it’s fundamentally a better way of going about it.

Everything I have been reading and researching about the practices of expert teachers leads me to believe that a video is not going to be a good use of time. And it isn’t because I hate fun or children or whatever, but because I love teaching. You probably can learn things from videos, but not as much as you can from an expert teacher. This is what I said to the person I was observing: it is your job to explain things, and you are brilliant at it. Don’t let some actor in a video do a worse job than you can because you think it is more engaging or “active.” There probably are some videos out there which genuinely are better than a teacher explanation, but probably not many.

Videos definitely do have their uses towards the end of a learning sequence. I will often play SciShow videos or similar to show my students the cutting edge of the material they have learnt in class, or how it is playing out in the “real world.” But that’s enrichment; that’s additional. It’s not taking away from my core purpose: taking vitally important and frighteningly complex material, breaking it apart, and teaching it slowly and deliberately.

So are educational videos rubbish? Not always. But in a straight fist-fight with an expert teacher I know who I’d back.