How Covid has revolutionised teaching

The past nine months have possibly been the toughest that teachers have ever faced, but Chris Parr finds that, amid the chaos, teachers have been quietly working education miracles for their pupils. He talks to staff from all sectors and phases about the ingenious ways they have found to teach amid a global pandemic
11th December 2020, 12:00am
How Covid Has Revolutionised Teaching
Chris Parr


How Covid has revolutionised teaching

Belinda Ludlam carefully considers the question. Eventually, the director of sixth-form learning and assistant headteacher at Oaklands Catholic School, Hampshire, begins to answer.

"You know, I didn't think all this would change schools so markedly," she says. "When I think about how much people have changed this term, in terms of their content delivery and the creative ways that they're producing materials, it's phenomenal. It's like a war, where medical discoveries are accelerated - the Covid crisis has forced us to deliver learning in a different way, and some of it is really good."

It may seem odd to hear someone answering the question "what lessons have you learned from teaching in a pandemic this term?" by saying that there have been positives to take away from the past three months - after all, there is a strong argument to be made that this term has been the hardest that teachers have ever faced.

After the unpredictability of the summer term, there was an expectation of normality for the autumn term that had no real chance of being fulfilled. School operations were still severely restricted by Covid rules - rules that became harder to adhere to as the weather grew steadily colder, making ventilation and outdoor learning trickier, if not impossible.

Secondary schools also had to face the fallout from this summer's exam-grading fiasco and, for all schools, the apparent "lockdown learning gap" meant that time had to be spent working out where pupils were in their learning before starting any new teaching. And the virus had not gone away - far from it: endless cycles of self-isolation for staff and pupils has meant disruption on a shocking scale: for some schools, it is a wonder they were able to stay open at all.

Yet plenty of teachers echo Ludlam's sentiments - that although this term has been extremely challenging, there have been positives that are worth filtering out and reflecting upon. That is not just in the hope that such a process will make things easier next term when things are still likely to be deeply unsettled, but because some of those elements may prompt real, positive change when things eventually do return to "normal".

So, what exactly are these beneficial lessons from teaching during a pandemic?

The most obvious starting point is the use of technology. Even where schools had previously adopted a flipped-learning approach, the "lecture-style" videos being used were more commonly pre-existing videos available online, rather than brand new videos made by teachers for each module. In addition, use of tech for the setting of homework or communication with home was limited.

After nine months of disrupted teaching, you would now be hard pressed to find a school without a comprehensive tech platform to enable children to learn from home if and when that is required during school time. Attitudes have shifted and tech - once seen by some as a burden on teaching - is now very much part of pedagogy, not just for the period of the pandemic but as a long-term option.

Take Thurston Community College, a secondary school and sixth form in Suffolk, for example, which has now built up a bank of videos with lesson content that can be accessed by students who are forced to isolate at home. The view of the teachers at the school is that this resource will be a long-term benefit.

"I think [the pandemic is] revolutionising education," says Shabnam Ahmed, head of Year 13 at Thurston. "There will always be a need for teachers. We can never, ever go completely online because a human interaction is really important for students, especially that reassurance that you can't get from the video. But for students who might not have supportive parents or who have parents who are not educated in a particular subject, it's another helping hand we can give them at home."

Ludlam agrees and adds that the past few months have highlighted the fact that existing platforms being used for learning at home were not up to scratch, but because they were under-utilised, no one had really complained. The pandemic has provided a much-needed kick to get teachers more involved in using tech as part of their teaching and to demand the right tools to do it.

For example, Oaklands had to abandon one piece of software - described by Ludlam as a "very wobbly homework forum" - which several year groups had been using to share lessons with students who were at home. Instead, the school took the difficult decision to train everyone to use Microsoft Teams instead, which everyone has found to be far more effective.

"That was a bit of a journey that's been difficult," she admits. However, now that teachers are up to speed, the potential to incorporate online aspects of education into day-to-day pedagogy is far greater, and that will be something the school utilises when the pandemic has long passed, Ludlam says.

Another key lesson of the pandemic, though, is that the tech alone is not the solution: what you use the tech for is what really matters. As such, teachers have reflected upon their pedagogy like never before (see box, below).

A good example of this comes from the special school sector. Chailey Heritage School is an East Sussex special school for children and young people aged 3-19 with complex physical disabilities, high health needs, sensory impairments and associated learning difficulties. In the pandemic, staff found that rather than delivering direct instruction, what they really needed to do was to adopt a coaching role, says Dan Tallis, a teacher at the school.

"For those who are visually impaired, or who have hearing impairments, it can be very difficult to actively teach online, so what we are doing is holding sessions in which we effectively talk parents through what we would do in class," he explains. "It's almost like we are delivering a training session to a parent or carer, showing them how to deliver something like a 'massage story', while also observing it being done and ensuring that it's being done to an appropriate standard. So, in some cases, we have shifted from actually delivering the activity to training others how to do it well."

Ludlam says that in the mainstream sector, too, teachers had to reassess how they taught - thinking about whether they were making the best use of technology, and not just carrying on as normal despite the medium of delivery shifting. She says teachers in some subjects have perhaps had to be more flexible in terms of pedagogy than others.

"Learning-wise, I think for those of us who've been able to teach through slides, and through straightforward lessons, it's been easier to be effective," she says. "I think subjects like music, drama, design, languages - they have been harder. Within subjects, there's this disparity of things, because some teachers simply can't replicate what they were doing online, even on a video call."

And even in those subjects that seem more straightforward to teach remotely, it has been necessary to reimagine what lessons look like at times.

At Thurston, for instance, Ahmed realised that, while typing notes for students during an English literature lesson, they would often stop paying attention and their minds would wander. However, when she hand-wrote the notes and filmed it using a visualiser, engagement went up.

"It does mean I have to have polished nails all the time," she laughs, "but the visualiser has become my best friend. If we're looking at how to analyse a quotation, then I'll turn the visualiser on, they'll look at it and I will do my thinking process in front of them - so they'll see me write stuff, then cross things out. I can ask them for better words to use.

"When you're typing, I've noticed that the kids pay less attention than if you're writing, if they are in the class or at home - because it's shared experience. They aren't working on computers, so when you're writing with a pen, they pay more attention to that."

The visualiser has also helped when giving classroom feedback to a student one-on-one - the type of feedback for which, pre social distancing, teachers might have joined a student at their desk - and it is a piece of equipment that has come into its own across the curriculum this term, allowing teachers to experiment, Ahmed says.

"Some [art] teachers have asked students to put their art work under the visualiser - which only works if you've got a class that are confident enough to do this - but where they feel they can, they're asking the students to put their work under the visualiser and using the whole class to critique that piece of work."

Without social distancing, this useful approach to peer assessment might never have become so widely used, she adds.

"With photography, it has worked really well, too, because now the work can go on to a memory stick, up on the board, and all the kids can comment on the lighting or the exposure. I think it's building confidence for sharing work.

"Before social distancing, the teacher would just go to an individual student and say, 'You need to do this and the other.' So it's actually making our students into better peer assessors."

Primary schools, too, have had to adapt teaching to the circumstances they have faced. Mayflower Primary School, in East London, recognised the value of reaching out for help, and enlisted the expertise of Zachary Walker, an associate professor at UCL Institute of Education, who delivered a workshop to teaching staff on effective approaches to online pedagogy.

Walker says the pedagogical revolution that Covid has spurred will, he hopes, prompt long-term changes.

The shift to blended learning has "reinforced what we already know but has actually allowed teachers to put it into practice", he says.

"For example, we know a lot about the pedagogical value of 'chunking' content into 10- to 15-minute chunks of new material, and then break so the brain can consolidate and review that information," he explains. "We also know that students struggle with their attention after 10 to 15 minutes of video content, so these 10-minute videos actually lead to better chunking for the brain. We know that students need to move - blood to the brain is important and it doesn't happen when we sit for long stretches - so these shorter, chunkier lessons will hopefully carry over to the classroom when we return to face-to-face [teaching]."

One of the big positives of remote learning is that it has brought all of this into sharper focus, suggests Walker. He also believes that, post-lockdown, teachers will be encouraged to be far more flexible in their teaching approaches.

"This is a big one," he says. "I think and hope that teachers are more and more aware that students learn differently, and that some flexibility within lessons is really important. [It's about] meeting students where they are, and allowing each student to take ownership of their learning is critical. This can only happen when we are a bit flexible in what we offer and what we accept back."

That flexibility has included a big chunk of creativity and many schools hope this will stay when the pandemic is finally over, too.

"Everyone's been so creative in finding ways of sharing their lessons, whether it's filming recipes being made for food technology, or making little videos - everyone is a creator now, and I think teachers weren't such creators before," says Ludlam.

She cites one example of a science teacher filming equations using his phone held up by a laboratory clamp.

"We've all learned that one of the principles of remote learning is that you need to connect with your learner, and maintain that relationship. If they feel that you are interested in speaking to them on an individual basis, they're going to feel much more invested in the lesson, and you're going to be much more likely to get the work done."

Tallis adds that, at his school, creativity has been a huge part of what they have done in the past few months. There are also some "really lovely stories" of teachers coming up with "incredibly inventive ways of encouraging children to partake and participate in normal learning activities" despite receiving teaching online, he says.

In one case, a student and her parents were encouraged to build a seat at home out of everyday items, which was based on a specialist chair at the school. It allows the pupil to spend time out of her wheelchair in order to practise trunk control. While isolating, many students really miss having access to the school's equipment, Tallis explains.

"We helped them to make this construction where she sat in between Mum and Dad, while talking on Teams with her teacher. It was a lovely bit of improvised equipment creation," he says. "Remembering that you can actually do some of this stuff in more inventive ways, realising that anything you've got can be used as learning equipment in one way or another - that is definitely something I think we have learned from the online teaching that we have done."

Away from pedagogy, the pandemic has highlighted and deepened existing disparities between disadvantaged children and their peers. While this is always a focus for schools, the pandemic and subsequent learning loss have really forced staff to think about the most important areas to focus upon because time is so short. The situation has made teachers ask more often than ever before: what is the most important thing for me to do today in the time available?

Heba Al-Jayoosi, assistant headteacher at Mayflower Primary School, explains that the negative impact of the pandemic on learning should not be underestimated.

"Online learning was really hard, because the children's access to technology was extremely limited," she says. "Even when some of our children come back after a summer holiday, they can tend to regress because there's little enrichment out of school. And so for them to have six months 'off', we knew that we were going to face something phenomenal."

As a result of this, the school had to make a decision about what to focus on as the children returned.

"For us, this was reading, reading and reading," says Al-Jayoosi. "That has been our key message to our staff. Read those stories, don't skip your story time and invest a lot of time on catching up with reading. Because we know that reading, and then spoken English, are the keys that open up the rest of the curriculum. So that's what we've told our staff to prioritise."

Ludlam says that the pandemic has also enabled teachers to see struggling students in a new light. During the first lockdown, she says it was difficult to know why some sixth-formers seemed to be disengaged with lessons. To find out, the school carried out a survey of students to identify what was stopping them from working.

"When I looked at what they were saying, they were not doing the work for all sorts of different reasons, not just because they didn't want to - although that was one reason," Ludlam says.

The school developed some "categories of learner", and details of the different types were given to teachers at the start of this term to help them tailor their teaching to the students' different needs.

"Some of the kids loved working at home - it was quiet, they had a nice computer set-up at home, with Mum and Dad bringing them drinks the whole time. So, some of them liked it better than being in the classroom," she says. Others, though, were finding it hard to read and follow instructions confidently, while some were "having an emotional meltdown, because they felt the world was ending".

"When we had the kids who had technological issues - so maybe they were trying to access quite complex PDFs, or endless PowerPoint slides, on their phones," Ludlam explains.

Pinpointing these issues, and encouraging staff to identify which of their students fell into which categories, has helped to make remote teaching far more effective this term, she says, and she hopes it will bring a greater understanding in the future, too.

In reality, the above stories will have only scratched the surface of lessons learned during this period. Talk to any teacher and they will tell you about moments of inspiration, recognition or change that will stay with them for the rest of their career. And those things will be gloriously diverse.

Of course, none of this is to say that the past nine months have not been incredibly tough for schools and those who work in them. The challenges have been huge and the support - from government and, at times, the public - has not been what it should have been. But the great thing about schools is that they are dynamic, positive places, full of people who see a challenge and want to find a solution. The only reason teaching has still happened during this period is because of that attitude - and the solutions listed here show not only the innovative and creative minds working in education, and the dedication of staff, but also that this is a flexible profession ready to adapt and reflect on its practice for the good of the pupils.

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "Teaching will never be the same again"

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