This has been a really strange first week of term, and that’s saying something considering back in August I thought it couldn’t get much weirder. But this week, all across the country, teachers have been working hard to prepare for home learning which will begin on Monday. It’s been a challenge, and many have understandably felt overwhelmed. It’s been really important to support each other and throughout the week I’ve seen nothing but examples of teams coming together, collaborating and just getting on with it in order to support our learners. I think it’s safe to say that this is going to be a long haul – we’ve been fortunate to have had three full days to prepare unlike many colleagues south of the border. So as we approach the beginning of home learning, I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the research and evidence which I’ve been using to inform my approach for the weeks ahead. I fully anticipate making tweaks to my plans, as I reflect on the reality. But I’m sharing these ideas in the hope that it might be of use to someone else. Most of my approaches have come about as a result of reading the EEF’s research summary on remote learning which can be found here.
As well as this, we also consulted learners in our department about what worked for them during the previous lockdown, and will continue to survey their opinions about how things are going over the coming weeks to hear what we can do to help, support and improve things.
As always, the dichotomy of my values is never far from my thoughts. There often seems to be, unnecessarily in my opinion, an either/or situation in education. Strict or soft. Attainment or achievement. Nurture or exam results. Academic or vocational. Live or recorded. Synchronous or asynchronous. Contrary to what others believe, for me personally, these can exist alongside each other and indeed I believe it is important that they do. My high expectations and desire to deliver quality home learning experiences which pupils are expected to engage with, is positioned absolutely parallel to my need for empathy and compassion in the difficulties our young people and their families will face over the coming weeks. I find it almost impossible to separate the two as they are so intrinsically connected in my vision as to what education should be. Therefore, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the steps forward we have taken since March when we found ourself in this same situation, such as increased device provision and staff/pupil digital training in anticipation of another period of remote learning. Nonetheless I believe it’s important to recognise that there will still be difficulties. Yes we have increased expectations and things should be better than in March, but it goes without saying that there will be challenges. So here are my thoughts on this.
There has been much debate this week about live vs recorded lessons. PowerPoint versus Sway. Google classroom as opposed to Microsoft teams. But in line with my thinking, the evidence suggests that the important part is the actual learning itself not whether the lesson is synchronous or asynchronous.
“Pedagogy trumps the medium. That’s the case whether teaching is live or pre-recorded or a mix of both” Simon Cox
We know that teachers all teach in different ways, so it’s only natural that each person will have a preference for what works best for them. And that may change depending on the content being covered and the context . But what’s important is that we are still using the features of effective pedagogy to make our pupils think. With that in mind, I’ve tried to ensure that I’m providing high quality tasks which are linked to the learning which pupils will cover as part of our art and design curriculum. Try not to be seduced by gimmicks or apps which may well look good to share on social media but perhaps lack substance. Instead consider the appropriateness of the learning and how we can ensure learners can access this. I’ve encouraged staff to build pupil confidence in the first instance with straightforward tasks, perhaps recapping learning so that pupils experience success instantly. This is important as anyone who uses retrieval practice will know. The demand on thinking can be something to work towards. In art and design, we’ve had to adapt lessons and outcomes due to limited resources at home but what matters is that the task features modelling, checking for understanding, opportunities to practice and feedback. For anyone concerned about their digital skills, please hold on to the fact you are great teacher. You know your stuff and it’s no different on a digital platform. Yes there will be aspects which you will be unfamiliar with, but you are still the subject expert at what you are teaching. Take confidence from that – your pupils most definitely do.
Just as you wouldn’t overload pupils’ working memory with instructions in class, remember tasks issued online should be clear and simple too. Avoid the temptation to over complicate lessons with power-points full of text, information and graphics. Remember many of our young people may be viewing these on a small screen such as a phone, so keep it simple. Use bullet points to keep instructions short and to the point. It can be tempting to signpost young people to lots of different supports, but I would suggest drip-feeding these as needed to avoid young people feeling overwhelmed. After noticing his tweet about the impact of instructions, I have been reading about front loading in Adam Boxer’s blogpost here. He explains a front-loading instruction… ‘where you put your Means of Participation or whatever at the front of your instruction, where you anticipate the point at which a student might stop listening to you and thinking about something else (like the answer to the question) and get all the important information in before that point.’ Rather than giving them a video link, (which they will click on and rush off to watch without knowing what their focus is) then explaining you want them to look for three points about X, try swapping it over. Give the link last then they know what they’ve to look for before navigating to the resource. It’s something to bear in mind and I’ve found this really useful this week when scheduling tasks for pupils. I’m more mindful of the placement and order of the instruction, ensuring the way in which they should complete the task ie on paper, digitally, or on Kahoot all comes before the specific task or question.
For me relationships are absolutely key. But this goes way beyond the interactions that we will make online this week. Yes it will be important to check in with our young people online and give them support, conversation and let them know that we are there for them in the coming weeks. However, I would argue that the ground work for this has already been laid in the months leading to this. Many teachers are worried about how learners will engage in home learning. Whilst there are many factors which will impact this, in my opinion, if you have already built up a strong positive relationship with young people, they will be far more likely to make the effort to participate. The mutual trust and respect you have grown with them since August allows them to feel connected and safe in this new online environment, secure in the knowledge that you will be there for them. You will hopefully have built in the intrinsic motivation for learning which will be the catalyst for their home learning experience. During the first lockdown I listened to the wonderful Richard Gerver on the ‘Becoming Educated’ podcast and he spoke about considering what we want our learners to be able to do when we aren’t around. I found this really useful to consider during our time in school from August and it very much helped shaped my learning and teaching to ensure I was giving young people the knowledge and skills to be able to work successfully under their own initiative. The more we have worked to create confident, independent learners in school, the more likely they will be to cope when we aren’t right beside them in the classroom.
So assuming we have had some engagement with young people on the online platform, I think it is so important to ensure, as we would in the physical classroom, that we feedback on this. For this to be effective, pupils need to know that we will look at their work and comment on it so they can get better. As we would in class, feedback is more effective when given at the time or soon after the task so bear this in mind. And whilst it might not be possible to give instant teacher feedback on submissions, I would suggest that self-marking quizzes, quick chat comments and praise all go some way in encouraging the pupil to keep going. Pupils then know they are on the right track giving them the confidence to continue. The sooner specific teacher feedback is given the sooner the pupil knows we are invested in them working at home and the clearer the feedback, the more they will be able to move forward.
Opportunities for checking in and class interaction are important too. Learners will be missing their friends and the social side of school so I will try to build in activities which encourage discussion (breakout rooms in MS teams is good for this ) or collaborative activities encouraging pupils to share learning and peer assess work (shared documents which pupils can type in simultaneously and Padlet are both great.) Live lessons will not simply be me talking at pupils for the session. I will use the chat function to cold call pupils checking for understanding, model tasks, and integrate apps such as polls and Mentimeter to survey pupils and quiz their knowledge.
Since March, hundreds of devices have been issued to our pupils to ensure they have an ICT platform to engage in home learning. Last lockdown we became incredibly inventive about home learning tasks which used objects found around the home as we were mindful that many young people, just like us teachers, were limited with resources. In a practical subject such as art and design, that can prove difficult but using cereal boxes, loo rolls and nature made for creative outcomes. This session we were a bit more prepared. In October we issued all our seniors with a pack of drawing materials to keep at home as a precaution. It’s so important that young people have what they need to continue with their folio work. They won’t have us there beside them, so having the appropriate materials helps tremendously and relieves a little bit of stress for them instead of improvising.
And finally, the most important point. Every pupil, every teacher and every circumstance is different – flexibility and compassion is key in making this work. We understand that this will be challenging, so being human and admitting this to our learners goes some way to reassuring them that we are all in a difficult situation. Knowing our pupils, and being proactive in the support we offer will also be important. Doug lemov talks about ‘dissolving the screen’ in his book Teaching in the online classroom I think it’s important that we find ways of breaking down the limits of remote learning. Small things like face to face videos help build connection or playing music as pupils enter live lessons helps soothe the teenage brain before engaging on what can be overwhelming and uncomfortable. Reassuring learners that cameras and microphones can be switched off and encouraging pupils to interact via chat will go a long way to building confidence – remember pupils are masters of texting and WhatsApp. As their confidence builds, you can increase expectation of asking them to speak out. Again you know your pupils best, bearing in mind their challenges and finding ways to overcome these, are your superpower as a teacher. Monitoring interaction, checking in personally with families and ensuring that we offer support and understanding rather than punishment or consequences is far more likely to encourage families to persevere.
Look how far we’ve come since March 20th 2020. No other profession has undergone such extreme and complex change in such a short space of time. We can do this, because we always do. Be good to yourself, don’t ruminate when it doesn’t go to plan – it won’t all work out the way we hoped. Reach out to others – they will get you through. And remember we can only do what we can do.
Have a great week everyone – you have got this.