Predicting Failure

by Guest Blogger
October 8th, 2013

Caution: Frustration Ahead! Yes indeed, this post needs a warning label.

The BBC, in conjunction with the British Council, is aiding and abetting the spread of edutainment and comprehension strategies through its website TeachingEnglish.


BBC thumbs down courtesy of Shutterstock.


A look at the most recently added lesson plans reveals far too much trivial content. The first two pages have “lessons” on snacking, playground words, food festivals, gossip, and texting. Out of the 10 lessons shown on those two pages, there is one substantive lesson on carnivores vs. herbivores, which draws on “Triumph of the Herbivores” from BBC Earth. With the BBC’s in-depth news coverage and documentaries, I assumed all its lessons would draw on its treasure-trove of content.

To be fair, I must say that I have merely perused the site. These recently added lessons could grossly misrepresent the bulk of the content—and I hope they do. I also hope the BBC starts vetting the lessons to remove the many that are substance free. In particular, I hope it removes this one: “Pause & predict – YouTube technique.” It encourages teachers to use Mr. Bean clips to teach children to make predictions. This is a couple years old, so I wish I could just shudder and forget about it. But over the weekend, this time-wasting lesson spread to the US:

By fourth grade, students are often proficient at making predictions about what will happen at the end of a book…. What they aren’t as used to is making small predictions–close predictions–thinking about how a character might respond to the next big event or interaction based on how that character has responded in the past…. Mr. Bean is a great character to use for prediction work, because he has a very clear M.O. He tries to solve his problems in ways that fix the immediate issues, but miss the main point. For example, in the short clip, “Packing for a Holiday,” Mr. Bean manages to fit everything in a suitcase, but he does so by making the items useless, like packing only half a shoe.

Mr. Bean on the high dive is priceless, but my knowledge of Mr. Bean—including my ability (or lack thereof) to predict what he’ll do next—never helped me in college, in the voting booth, in keeping up with current affairs, etc. Simply put, the lovable Mr. Bean’s purpose is laughter and relaxation—not education. In the US, youth only spend 20% of their waking time (about 12% of their total time) in school. Given the great breadth of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills they need to acquire to become literate adults, we just don’t have time for Mr. Bean.

The sad fact is, the teachers who are excited about this Mr. Bean lesson don’t know any better. As NCTQ has clearly demonstrated, the majority of teachers are never taught that knowledge, vocabulary, and fluent decoding are essential to reading comprehension. Many are taught about comprehension strategies; but without strategies being placed in the larger context of how comprehension develops, teachers end up with a very skewed notion of best practices. Predicting how Mr. Bean will pack for a holiday is the result.

So long as teacher and administrator preparation passes on mistaken beliefs instead of cognitive science research, such silliness is inevitable. Poor preparation leads to weak curriculum selection and development, which is then reinforced with professional development based on the same mistaken beliefs. Our current teachers would be far more effective if they were given a better education and better instructional materials.

In that spirit, let’s see what cognitive science tells us about comprehension strategies. Daniel Willingham summed up the research as follows:

[Comprehension strategies] don’t really improve the comprehension process per se. Rather, they help kids who have become good decoders to realize that the point of reading is communication. And that if they can successfully say written words aloud but cannot understand what they’ve read, that’s a problem. Evidence for this point of view include data that kids don’t benefit much from reading comprehension instruction after 7th grade, likely because they’ve all drawn this conclusion, and that increased practice with reading comprehension strategies doesn’t bring any improved benefit. It’s a one-time increment.

Willingham goes on to explain that “the one-time boost to comprehension can be had for perhaps five or ten sessions of 20 or 30 minutes each” and that the rest of the time spent on comprehension strategies is both a waste of time and counterproductive: It makes reading boring. That’s probably why some teachers have turned to Mr. Bean. A better solution would be to spend far less time on comprehension strategies and far more on science, history, literature, art, geography, and music.



  1. [...] via Predicting Failure « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Predicting Failure « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber — October 8, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  2. I just finished three days of in-service training on implementing the Common Core. Time and time again, our presenters/trainers stated that content is now in the background; skills are what students need. Students need these skills because in the world of Google and Yahoo, one can simply look up facts, so students don’t need to build knowledge; only practice skills and “learn to be a learner”.The lesson plans that most groups of teachers created were trivial or so disconnected that no student could understand the key concepts of the lesson.
    The Common Core clearly states the need for a knowledge-building curriculum, and clearly states that knowledge of history, science and literature will make students better readers and thinkers. However, it seems that many school districts have conveniently ignored these words and embraced the anti-academic and anti-intellectual ideas of P21 and 21st century skills. The ideas of Mr. John Dewey have simply been repackaged with technology.

    Comment by Kevin — October 9, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

  3. I have to say in my experience with DC with my second grader, they are still giving tons of find the main idea worksheets. I am so frustrated because they are on pointless topics like schools in Death Valley. Too many damn 3rd party workbooks not enough well developed resources for teachers.

    Comment by DC Parent — October 9, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

  4. i do not think the BBC-British Council Lessons can be compared with English lessons for K-12 classrooms in the US or even in the UK. They appear to be designed mostly for foreigners to learn English, akin to ESL. For a foreigner to learn English using Mr Bean videos might not be a bad idea, for a 4th grader in the US this would be way beneath expectation.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — October 10, 2013 @ 10:44 am

  5. Hi Sujata,

    I wish that were the case (though I would still emphasize the need for learning academic vocabulary), but in fact there is a separate website called Learning English for those whose first language is not English. And, some unnamed person behind the TeachingEnglish twitter feed has been tweeting me about how successful this Mr. Bean lesson has been. I have to question that notion of success. Opportunity costs matter.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — October 10, 2013 @ 10:58 am

  6. I think that idea of Mr. Bean for teaching English is awesome. Students would find it interesting, hilarious and informative. Lisa is right about the need for learning basic vocabulary,

    Comment by Susan — October 18, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

  7. Nowadays educators discuss very often the 21st century skills that today’s children need. My understanding is that no matter how advanced our science and technology is, skills need to be built upon knowledge. It is essential for students to learn all kinds of knowledge from different subjects so that they can have content to process when doing the high-order thinking. Through learning different knowledge, they can build authentic connections between their learning and the real world, and develop enduring understanding of the society. Students still need to build up their vocabulary, reading comprehension, their writing skills etc. You cannot just look things up when you need it while you are not sure if you would be able to fully comprehend the information you have searched on a website. The key point is how to help students make authentic connections between what they are learning and the real world. For instance, when we teach vocabulary, instead of letting students make some meaningless sentences for the sake of making sentences, we can guide them to make meaningful and authentic sentences they can use in their daily life to communicate with people.

    Comment by Yali Chang — November 13, 2013 @ 6:09 am

  8. I agree with Susan. Use of Mr. Bean for teaching english would be an interesting idea :P

    Comment by Susie — September 23, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

  9. We are social beings and communication is part of our makeup, without this basic need to share things civilization would be a totally different place and we wouldn’t have progress as far as we have. Society progress a whole lot more quickly once the print press was invented when knowledge distribution with the masses became an easier procedure.

    Comment by Monica Farcas — March 10, 2015 @ 9:27 am

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