I am writing this post in bits and pieces over the course of a couple of days during any time I can snatch in between: juggling recording lessons on Loom, narrating on PowerPoints, meeting pupils live on Teams, checking pupil work on Firefly, giving them feedback, logging missed work, responding to questions and answering emails. In 17 years at the chalkface, I don’t remember a time when I was ever working harder. Perhaps the most frustrating part about all this work is the difficulty in knowing what is working. What should I be doing more of? What could I perhaps be doing less of? In the normal life of the classroom I am a lean, mean, teaching machine but the context of remote learning feels very different and the learning curve is a steep one.
It was something of a relief therefore to receive some useful guidance from Ofsted at the beginning of the week on What’s working well in remote education? Amongst the clamour and conflicting messages from politicians, media commentators and the vox pops in the street, it provided a glimmer of sanity. Entitling something “What is working” feels a little bold. I am amazed that anyone can confidently say what is working at the moment – what data would be basing that on? What it feels more like are some best bets. But when we are lost, being guided by a best bet is better than nothing. This is what they suggest:
1: Remote education is a way of delivering the curriculum
They remind us that the aim of education is the delivery of the curriculum,
And, just like the classroom curriculum, it needs to be carefully sequenced and ensure that pupils obtain the building blocks they need to move on to the next step. Curricular goals should be made as explicit remotely as they would be in the classroom.
This is fairly straightforward. Just as we would in school, we need to make sure that one lesson builds on the last and leads to the next and these threads that tie lessons together should be made explicit to the students. I’d suggest this is even more important when working remotely. When all students are in school, they come to my classroom and there are things to trigger their memories of the last time they were in that room, my last fascinating lesson could come flooding back to them. At home? Not so much. I wonder to what extent one lesson flows into another as they are sat in one place, hour after hour, staring at the same screen?
My response to this is to make sure that every lesson begins with a recap of the prior learning that relates to what they are about to study and ends with a trailer for the next lesson. I am also ensuring that I am very explicit about how I expect pupils to use prior learning when answering questions.
2: Keep it simple
My favourite ever suggestion is to keep things simple! Here, Ofsted suggest,
Our brains don’t learn differently using remote education, so everything we know about cognitive science and learning still applies. We don’t have to make huge changes to the way we teach.
I think this is a very useful reminder. All that work we have done over the past few years on using retrieval, supporting working memory and managing the cognitive load of a task come into play when working remotely. One of thing I had to work on during the first lockdown and that I have tried to keep in mind now is not presenting too much information in one go. It can be very tempting, especially during live sessions, to front load the lesson with a lot of explanation before pupils get to the tasks – the risk here is that they will have forgotten what they have been told by the time they get there. I find this easier to handle during pre-recorded lessons where I can direct pupils to pause and recording and complete something before pressing play again.
Ofsted also warn here of the split attention affect – whereby pupils have to switch their focus between text and images, losing some of the meaning of each as they do so. I have tried to integrate images and text on one slide and avoid pupils having to move backwards and forwards during a lesson.
3: When adapting the curriculum, focus on the basics
Here we find a useful reminder that whilst our goal it to teach our curriculum, we may need to adapt this curriculum. Learning remotely can be slower going without the magic that happens in the classroom. We may have to accept that we are not going to cover as much. I have had to remind myself constantly that there is no point in covering content is nothing is being learnt. I am having to slow down and spend more time going back over previously learnt material, painstakingly joining everything up together. If I rush through too much then misconceptions will become embedded and the big picture of my subject will be lost. I am trying to think, what is the most important thing that they walk away with? Then I focus on that.
4: Feedback, retrieval practice and assessment are more important than ever
This opens again with the reminder that the principles of learning hasn’t changed just because it is remote,
Learning isn’t fundamentally different when done remotely. Feedback and assessment are still as important as in the classroom. It can be harder to deliver immediate feedback to pupils remotely than in the classroom, but teachers have found some clever ways to do this.
As they say though, it is harder to do this remotely. In the classroom we are getting and giving feedback constantly. “That was a good answer because…” “Could you reword that so…” “Can everyone stop for a moment because I notice that…” etc. We can’t stop ourselves. I had hoped that the magic of the classroom, and its ability to assess and feedback in the moment could be captured, during live remote sessions but I have found things are still much too stilted. Questioning takes longer and I am hampered by the lack of body language. It just isn’t the same.
I have found a few things help. I try to make sure there is one key question or task during a lesson. This is the one I focus on to gauge understanding. If there are mistakes here, I know I need to respond to them in the next lesson.
This is still the part of the learning process that I am finding the most clumsy. The problem is needing to monitor that pupils are completing work, are learning what needs to be learnt and motivating pupils to continue working in this way for weeks and weeks. Opening up to 150 pieces of work each day to check they have been done and to acknowledge their work takes a lot of time. If anyone has found a more effective and efficient way to do this, please let me know.
5: The medium matters (a bit)
There has at times over the last year, been an odd attitude that live remote lessons are a gold standard and pre-recorded ones a poor runner up. However, the evidence suggests that there is no difference in terms of pupil learning between live and pre-recorded lessons. The medium matters a lot less than the quality of instruction it contains. Where the medium might matter is if it contains its own distractions. Are pupils misusing a chat function during a live session so that the attention of their peers is split? If material is uploaded to YouTube, are pupils distracted by the recommended videos appearing down the side?
6: Live lessons aren’t always best
As they say,
Some think that a live lesson is the ‘gold standard’ of remote education. This isn’t necessarily the case. Live lessons have a lot of advantages. They can make curriculum alignment easier, and can keep pupils’ attention, not least as the teacher has more control over the learning environment. But live lessons are not always more effective than asynchronous approaches.
Personally, I have found that I think much more about live interactions, used to keep in touch with pupils, motivate them and give them feedback on how they are doing, and pre-recorded lessons, in which they are introduced to new material and complete tasks. I know other people though have had a great deal of success hosting their lessons live and have had far more interaction from pupils in their classes.
As is so often the case, it seems to come down to having a clear purpose. What are we trying to achieve here and what is the best way to do this? The form should follow the function. If a live session allows you to do something more effectively and/or efficiently, then that is great, likewise for a pre-recorded one. They may both have their place but it is too context dependent for sweeping statements about the superiority of one approach. Leave it to the experts. And as far as anyone is an expert in doing this, that’s us.
7: Engagement matters, but is only the start
It can be quite easy to measure who is engaging with work. We can, at a glance, see who has uploaded something at the end of the lesson. But that is only the start. As Ofsted write,
While it is important to engage pupils, this is only a precondition for learning, not the thing itself. There is only so much a teacher can do to engage pupils remotely. We therefore need to make sure that efforts to engage don’t distract us from teaching the curriculum. We also need to check whether pupils have actually learned the content we want them to through assessment.
It can be tempting to value that it is easy to measure, in this case engagement, but what we need to know is whether pupils have learnt what we wanted them to learn. That is not quite the same thing. It can also lead to us focusing on doing more to increase the thing we can measure at the expense of what actually matters. We might end up putting a lot of energy into keeping pupils doing stuff by making it entertaining, but there is little point if it doesn’t also lead to learning.
Luckily, I have managed to avoid that pitfall by teaching the world’s most naturally engaging subject, geography.
The best thing I can say about the Ofsted report into What’s working well in remote education is that it does nothing new. After the last 9 months, I don’t need anyone else to tell me something new. What I needed was exactly what this document does, a few key pointers to keep in mind when planning lessons and that led me exercise my professional judgement.
The questions I am left with are these:
- How can we best balance the need to teach our curriculum with a recognition that we may have to move slower. What do we sacrifice and what do we focus on?
- How can we check that pupils are completing work and learning work in an effective and efficient way?
- When are live sessions most useful and how can we try to capture some of the magic of the classroom?
- How can we best encourage pupil attention to be directed at their work?
If people have any ideas and suggestions, please do leave them in the comments.
Head of Geography and Research Lead