Television changed our day jobs: Part I

Dr Cathy Buntting, University of Waikato

Featured Photo: Team zui – Tom Goulter (multimedia editor), Vanya Bootham (technical editor), Stephen Ross (script writer), Angela Schipper (script writer), Toni Cassrels (ERO quality assurance), Andrea Soanes (script writer), Cathy Buntting (script writer), Shawn Cooper (teacher presenter), Rachel Douglas (multimedia editor), Anne Barker (script writer), Suzy Cato (presenter)

Welcome to Part I of this two-part blog where we share some of the ‘inside story’ behind the educational television channels broadcast during the Covid-19 lockdowns in Aotearoa New Zealand. On 7 April 2020, two weeks into Aotearoa’s nation-wide lockdown, Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced the development of two new educational television channels to support school students’ at home learning. The channels would go to air one week later, on 15 April, as a joint initiative between the Education Review Office, Ministry of Education, Te Kura, and TVNZ. These organisations were already reaching out to their networks. As the much-loved television educator Suzy Cato, reported: “It’s had a very fast turnaround. Nothing like this has ever been done before.”

This blog shares some personal insights into life behind the scenes for one of the script writing teams, and members of the ERO/Ministry of Education/Te Kura quality assurance team. In Part II, presenters Suzy Cato and Shawn “the science guy” Cooper reflect on some of their experiences filming junior, middle and senior maths and science episodes.

Writing scripts for educational television

The Science Learning Hub team was one of several organisations approached about writing content for the proposed television channels. The Hub is funded by MBIE and managed out of the University of Waikato to connect scientists and educators by making the stories of NZ science more accessible and visible to school audiences and the wider communities. With hundreds of multimedia resources and stories of science in action, we were well positioned to get involved. By way of preparation, draft script templates produced by the Ministry of Education-ERO-Te Kura team had been shared “in case the initiative went ahead”, and in less than a week the team had added script writing to their day jobs.

 Over the next 6.5 weeks, the Science Learning Hub team, with support from the University of Waikato’s Te Whai Toi Tangata, Institute of Professional Learning, would deliver an incredible 57 scripts targeting junior (Years 1-3), middle (Years 4-6) and senior (Years 7-10) science. Across these scripts, more than 170,000 words would be written, permissions secured to use more than 1,000 images, and over 250 Science Learning Hub videos showcased. Some scripts, with a cross-curricular maths and science focus, were written in collaboration with Education Technology (who run nzmaths.co.nz) – a team we met the day before our first collaborative script was required. (Go collaboration!)

Elsewhere in Aotearoa, other teams were frantically organising themselves to deliver scripts to support the channels’ other segments. This Youtube clip is often shared in educational contexts to showcase the challenges of ‘building a plane while it’s flying’. Here, we were in the midst of building a television channel – whilst it was going to air!

‘Shawn the Science Guy’ on the set in the early days of Home Learning TV Filming

Key to the successful delivery of episode scripts was frequent, transparent communication with the Ministry of Education. There was also a step-change after we met the presenters – Suzy Cato and Shawn Cooper – and were able to work with them as they prepared for filming. Episode topics were selected based on potential for audience engagement, resource availability, and the Ministry of Education’s themes of belonging, identity, social justice, Matariki, NZ history, construction, and careers.

Although shifting timelines meant that writing teams were constantly under the pump, everyone pulled together with a strong sense of shared purpose – and with no access to takeaway kai, whānau learned to cook while our writing team focused on what needed to be done for scripts to be submitted. The irony was that the week previously we’d created this video exhorting viewers to be realistic and kind with themselves about what working from home during lockdown might mean.

Quality assurance

After scripts were submitted to the Ministry of Education, a small team of staff from the Ministry and the Education Review Office reviewed each one against a rigorous set of 18 criteria. These were based on principles of Universal Design for Learning and the OECD’s seven principles of learning as they apply to Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, the episodes would support social engagement, interaction and participation; contain content relevant to learners from a range of cultural backgrounds; value Māori and Pacific beliefs, culture and languages; contain engaging and interesting activities; and allow for multiple means of engagement with tasks and multiple levels of demand.

Again, turnaround time was fierce and any modifications needed to be negotiated at pace. However, Toni Cassrels from ERO reflects that, “being such an integral part of the process was very exciting. It was an opportunity to collaborate with the writers and presenters to influence viewers, including sharing contemporary pedagogy with children, parents and teachers. The writers and presenters were focused on quality, the learning not the task, high expectations and scaffolding to support success. There was a real sense of satisfaction knowing we were providing a quality alternative to address the inequity of digital access.”

From scripts to episodes

…To be continued! Read Part II of this blog for reflections by Suzy Cato and Shawn “the science guy” Cooper, presenters of  the junior, middle and senior science episodes.


Dr Cathy Buntting is the Director of the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research at the University or Waikato. Cathy is also an award-winning Science Learning Hub and Principal Investigator for On2Science: Multiple affordances for learning through participation in online citizen science. Her research interests straddle science, technology and STEM education across the school years, with a strong focus on innovative approaches to education in these disciplines. Cathy is passionate about the teaching-research nexus, and development of teacher-facing educational resources.

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