Design a site like this with
Get started

Learning with In Our Time

I recently listened to a superb episode of the BBC’s In Our Time, which discussed the American poet Emily Dickinson. I was struck, as I often am when listening to the show, by the richness of its discussion and the rigour and precision with which the guests explored the various topics.

For those who may not know, In Our Time is a Radio 4 show freely available online and via Spotify in which a specific academic topic is addressed by a panel of subject experts, often university professors. Topics range from literature to history to AI to science to music and there are over 800 available. Each episode lasts in the region of 30 minutes.

After finishing the Dickinson episode, I started to think about whether or not it might be possible to utilise this resource in school in a more co-ordinated and systematic fashion than simply promoting it. If this were possible then the benefits would be enormous, with the below representing just three of many:

  1. Listening to the show would help to model rigorous, academic discussion. It provides a superb example of the way in which academics talk to one another. It highlights the precision with which they speak and the often tentative way in which they approach their subject, attentive to its inherent nuance. I’m also struck by the way in which it demonstrates the scholarly way with which to disagree: politely and which a counter-argument.
  2. The show also promotes super-curricular engagement, super-curricular being a term coined by the University of Cambridge to describe any academic enrichment that is beyond the curriculum. A more current term within the education community might be the hinterland, as coined by Christine Counsell. As well as exposing students to new and exciting avenues of thought, this will help to ensure students engage with subjects beyond a potentially narrow curriculum. The added knowledge will also help to strengthen work being done in the classroom, aiding the creation of a robust schema, with episodes perhaps being chosen to complement studied material.
  3. The most competitive universities expect a sustained engagement with super-curricular enrichment and indeed In Our Time is often mentioned as a specific example, as is the case with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Durham University, amongst other Russel Group institutions. Listening to the show would provide a platform for further research as well a starting point for personal statements.

So, how what are some of the ways in which we might achieve this?

  1. The simplest and arguably easiest way would be to link a relevant episode to whatever you happen to be teaching. Whilst this could be done verbally during class discussion, a more systematic direction to take would be to include embedded references to certain episodes when planning a SoW. This would then lead to the creation of a departmental bank of relevant episodes. This could then be promoted to students as and when needed or a central list of episodes could be distributed, either at the start of the year or topic by topic. The aim here would be to normalise listening to the show as part of routine teaching where students know if they would like to investigate a certain topic in more detail, the resources are available to do so. This would also help to promote an expectation of independent, super-curricular research beyond the classroom for those students who would like to engage in this.
  2. The above is predicated on listening to the show being a voluntary activity for those students who are interested in learning more about a given topic. However, listening to an episode could also be set as homework, again anchored to whatever material is currently being taught. Of course, added guidance would need to introduced to help to ensure this is effective. One way of doing this would be to produce a guided listening sheet, which could provide a template for listing questions asked by the Chair and a summary of responses by each participant. If the same episode has been set across the class, these sheets could then be exchanged for maximum exposure as inevitably students would focus on slightly different aspects of the discussion. This could also be used to frontload discussion that might be needed in a later lesson. Cornell notes would also be a good system to use in this scenario.
  3. Another way in which to embed In Our Time into the curriculum would be to use it when delivering presentations. This could be especially valuable for English Language GCSE where such presentations are mandatory. Students could select their own episode or teachers could collate a central list, with the idea then being that students listen to the episode, make notes, and build their presentation around this: summarising the key information discussed in the episode and offering their own perspective.
  4. Finally, an In Our Time Lunch Club could be started along one of two possible models. 1) Members of the club listen to an episode as well as making notes on it (using a guided listening template) and then discuss and explore the key ideas during the club itself. This would involve all members listening to the chosen episode in advance of the club itself. 2) The episode is listened to in the club itself, pausing, clarifying and discussing as desired. Once finished, the next meeting could provide an extended opportunity to discuss the episode.

Hopefully, this post has provided a couple of concrete and practical ideas as to how to begin building a knowledge-rich environment outside of the curriculum, utilising a superb and completely free resource to do so.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: