3 key tips for teaching practical subjects online

Teaching online is difficult for those who specialise in practical subjects – but Callum Bates has some advice
26th January 2021, 12:00pm
Callum Bates


3 key tips for teaching practical subjects online

Online Learning: How Teachers Can Deliver Practical Subjects Online During The Coronavirus Lockdown

Moving an entire teaching timetable online is a huge undertaking, particularly when it comes to subjects that rely on experiential learning and non-conventional forms of knowledge.

For us, it has meant refocusing our content and getting students on board with a completely new way of working within practical subjects. Here are some things that we have found useful:

Online learning: How to teach practical subjects

Adjust the focus

It's important to take time to identify exactly what we want our students to learn and why. Do we want our students to learn more about our subject and gain factual information? Do we want them to learn how to "do" our subject and learn technical skills?

Or do we want our students to develop their knowledge of our subject and understand more about their personal relationships with its content?

Teaching content-heavy lessons may feel like the easiest way to move practical subjects online but it would clearly be detrimental to students if their technical skills were diminished. 

Maintaining a balance between these different approaches is key. Whether they run through every lesson or are practised in isolated sessions is for individual teachers to decide. Taking such ownership through refocusing might enable teachers to maintain or reinvent their unique professional styles online.

Offer choices

Having refocused on what we want our students to be learning from our subject, we must next ensure that they have access to the required technology and materials to be able to fully participate in practical lessons.

It's difficult to know who has access to what equipment while they are at home. But ensuring that practical activities can continue doesn 't necessarily mean delivering musical instruments or Bunsen burners to students' homes. Instead, it involves being flexible and offering choices.

These choices can be nuanced and don't have to be related to outcomes. For example, an online food tech practical might involve choice about which dish to make but could also include alternative ways of making the dish - perhaps by using different ingredients or kitchen equipment.

Demonstrating to students that teachers are flexible and trusting enough to allow them to make these choices for themselves, as required by their personal circumstances, empowers students to make the most of what they have available to them, rather feeling penalised.

Fight the weirdness

Teaching online is strange, for students and teachers.

Asking a group of students to sing in a classroom with the energy and positive influence of their peers is a regular occurrence in any music department. In person, this experience is usually supportive and encouraging for our students. Singing on a video call while the rest of your household is trying to work is a very different scenario.

Preparing practical in-person work requires careful scaffolding to build both technical skill and confidence. Online practical work must be built upon the same notion of careful scaffolding, since many students will simply not have the confidence or knowledge of how to complete a task without it. 

Confidence can be nurtured online over time; by humming a couple of lines at a time before adding lyrics, for example, or allowing students to remain on mute until they have mastered their vocal parts.

Continuing to offer meaningful practical experiences to our students is important. We are often lucky enough to be the subjects that our students enjoy (and engage with) the most.

Keeping up access to positive experiences within our subjects is fundamental to students' successes, and working hard to normalise the weirdness of working practically online can lay the foundations for our experience-based subjects to continue to thrive

Callum Bates is a newly qualified music teacher in the East of England

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