With the Coronavirus closing schools around the world we are now seeing more and more about remote learning and the changes this will lead to. Some people are throwing out everything they know about effective instruction and deciding that remote learning changes everything. However, I think it is worth taking a breath and remembering that learning is always remote from teaching. The learning happens in the minds of our pupils. This is just as true if we are in a classroom with them or they are sat at a desk in their bedroom.
Pupils learning out of the classroom will certainly present all kinds of new logistical challenges but we can adapt our pedagogy rather than putting it all to one side. Let’s take a fresh look at our College Teaching and Learning Pillars.
I would argue that there is very little here that doesn’t apply just as well when setting work for pupils to complete at home. As long as we manage it right.
Within these three pillars we have three areas that we have been concentrating on this year.
- Retrieval practice
- Cognitive load theory
Let’s see how the pillar principles relating to these three areas might look now.
When we talk about retrieval we mean pupils remembering and using things they have studied in the past. In the classroom we might do that with a short quiz at the start of a lesson or through another starter task that requires pupils to make links between what they are about to study and what they already know (some ideas here). This principle applies just as well to work we are setting remotely. Pupils can still do a quiz if we think that will be useful. They can either check their own answers on a separate document (to reduce the temptation to avoid thinking hard and just sneak a peak) or we could set it as a quiz on Google Forms (see misconceptions below).
We can also take advantage of retrieval by making sure our lessons still follow a program of study and aren’t just a series of one off lessons. We can still ask pupils to use what they learnt last lesson to help them in the next one – we will just have to make the instructions very explicit i.e. “First look back over the work you did last lesson on the climate in Russia. Use this to explain why so few people live in the East. This lesson you will look at the problems Russia faces with its geography. Why might it be an issue that many natural resources are in Siberia? Use what you leant last lesson to help you. If we don’t direct their attention back to previous lessons they may not make the link themselves.
Cognitive Load Theory
In our collaboration teams last term we saw that there were many implications for Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) . At its heart is the idea that there is a limit to how much we can hold in our working memory but that our long term memory is essentially limitless. We want to help pupils increase their long term memory by developing their schema (their web of knowledge about a topic or situation) so that they can use it to learn more in the future. We need to avoid overloading their working memory so that they can think hard. In the classroom we do this by introducing material in small steps, using the whiteboard, visualiser or AirServer to leave models and diagrams for them to use and by thinking carefully about task design. All of this applies just as well to remote learning.
One of the challenges I have found in setting work remotely this week has been not being able to provide the kind of scaffolds I would give in the classroom. I am use to providing models or lists of key words live in the lesson. I am having to prepare them in advance instead. After slide containing a task I sometimes now include a second one containing scaffolding with the instruction to use it if they get stuck and feel they need it. I don’t want them to start relying on these things when they can handle the challenge without.
One of the most challenging of our pillar foci to do remotely is identifying and addressing misconceptions. This usually relies on us as teachers identifying likely misconceptions and then drawing them out during questioning so that they can be corrected. It is a subtle process where we really see the craft of teaching at work. Without this questioning it can be difficult to do.
Quizzes on Google Forms can help here. We can set questions that include common misconceptions and then see who was getting them wrong. You can even provide feedback on any answers they get wrong (“this is wrong because… people often make this mistake because…”). We can then plan the next lesson in the sequence with the answers to these questions in mind. This ability to still be responsive is why I will continue to set lessons one at a time and avoid doing what I see other schools doing and setting open ended projects or term long booklets for pupils to work through. I still want to see how pupils did last lesson before deciding exactly what they need to do next lesson.
In many ways our pupils are extremely lucky. Our work with the Heathfield Revision Clock means that they already know how to study independently and they know how learning works; we can utilise this knowledge when setting work. We have also spent the last few years focusing on the importance of deep and secure subject knowledge. Having this existing knowledge to hand makes learning new things much easier!
There are certainly challenges ahead for all of us but these challenges don’t have to mean throwing out everything we know and starting again. Our pillars support teaching and learning wherever it takes place.
Head of Geography and Research Lead