During the first lockdown, teachers had to pull remote learning solutions out of a hat, says Mark Enser. But, while it’s clear that no amount of digital wizardry can replicate the magic of the classroom, tools such as Zoom have transformed the way we think about pedagogy for good
I had a head start on remote learning. In early spring 2020, I was having to self-isolate after developing a cough and a high temperature. With no testing facilities, there was nothing to do but stay away from school and set work remotely. In a way, this was a blessing; it meant I had a chance to get to grips with a pattern of working that was going to become the norm for tens of thousands of teachers over the coming months.
As it turned out, I really needed that head start. When the order to move to remote teaching came, it was abrupt. School leaders and teachers had just days to set up ways of educating the children of critical workers and vulnerable children in school while teaching everyone else from afar.
So began our remote teaching odyssey.
The profession has come a long way since those early days. But just how has remote pedagogy evolved over the past year? And what has the experience taught us about effective teaching and learning overall?
Stage 1: finding what worked
Back in March 2020, the first big physical barrier for many teachers to overcome was a lack of technology in some children’s homes. Without access to enough devices for each child to work on, how would they access the materials they needed?
A divide began to open up between the technology haves and have-nots.
But there was a big pedagogical issue, too. So much of what we know about creating an environment for learning relies on there being a teacher in a room in front of a class of children. We don’t hand pupils their tasks for the day and retreat to our desks; we instruct, we ask questions and enter into dialogue, we give feedback, we adjust the lesson as it progresses based on what we have observed. This is the magic of the classroom that we so desperately needed to replicate remotely.
Some schools – largely private ones, with very wealthy intakes where technology was proving less of a barrier – moved quickly to live online lessons and it wasn’t long before debates raged about why more state schools weren’t following suit.
There was an assumption, usually coming from those outside of schools, that these live lessons must best replicate the teaching that worked so well in the classroom, but it soon became apparent that it was a poor proxy at best. Questioning is stilted and opportunities for immediate feedback are limited.
The Education Endowment Foundation’s report into remote learning concluded that there was no difference between live and pre-recorded lessons.
By the end of the first lockdown, schools were finding their way to whatever form of remote learning was going to work best for their contexts. But, by the summer, the headlines told alarming stories of the numbers of pupils who were completing no work at all at home. It was this message that was to shape pedagogical decisions on remote learning when we had to do it all again the second time around.
Stage 2: between lockdowns
Officially, schools were fully open between September (August in Scotland) and December 2020. And yet remote learning didn’t go away. With individual pupils or entire class or year group bubbles isolating, teachers were having to juggle setting work for those at home and teaching those in class, following government edicts that this provision should be the same.
Some tried beaming classroom lessons online to those not able to attend, while others continued to use Oak National Academy lessons, and still others sent home physical work when the government’s much-discussed laptops failed to materialise.
Once again, pedagogical decisions about how to teach were being constrained by physical barriers. At home, it still came down to whether people had access to the right technology. In the classroom, there were limitations imposed on teachers moving around and concerns about whether they could, or should, take in and look at work.
It was here that we could really see the importance of those aspects of teaching that often go unnoticed: walking around a room, pausing to glance at a pupil’s book before stopping the class when misconceptions are picked up on. It suddenly felt like we were flying blind.
Stage 3: remote learning 2.0
The return to remote learning at the start of 2021 happened in a flurry of confusion. Before the Christmas break, local councils had been threatened with legal action for suggesting that schools close to combat soaring infection levels, and over what should have been a much-needed holiday, teachers and school leaders were preparing to implement a programme of mass testing.
Then, one day into the new term, the government announced a return to remote learning. Once again, teachers stepped up. Once again, we had to make quick decisions as we scrambled to follow the U-turns.
This time, however, it seemed that something had changed. Not only were there more pupils than before in school but the expectations around remote learning had also shifted.
There was now a greater expectation that children, at least in secondaries, would spend as much time learning as they would have done in school, and that schools would monitor and address engagement. Those headlines from the summer were coming back to hit us, hard.
For too many teachers, the past few months have not been about remote learning but remote engagement. There have been pressures to increase the number of live lessons offered, not because they will lead to any more learning but because it shows that pupils are engaged.
Teachers have spent most of their days monitoring this engagement, logging a lack of engagement and, in many cases, having to make dozens of phone calls a day home to chase up this lack of engagement. This is on top of delivering five hours of live lessons, attending meetings and completing continuing professional development on how to do all of this.
Making pedagogy about engagement is a hugely flawed approach. We know in the classroom that pupils turning up and being engaged, even participating, doesn’t necessarily lead to better learning. It is what you are engaged with or participating in that counts.
Pupils may have been better served by watching a short instructional video and then working independently for the rest of the lesson. Live sessions might have been better used to give feedback on their work and to suggest areas for improvement, with the chance to ask questions to clarify and check understanding. Teacher time might have been better used creating diagnostic questions and assessing answers to see where gaps were.
But this wouldn’t look as good to those who stand outside the virtual classroom and peer in. The important thing in this lockdown was that everyone looked busy.
Stage 4: lessons from lockdown
Looking back over the past year, much of what we have learned is highly context dependent. I really hope we don’t find ourselves in the midst of another global pandemic any time soon. But there are a few lessons I have taken from this period of remote teaching.
There is a magic that comes from putting a knowledgeable teacher in a room full of children. This magic can’t be replicated remotely. This has left me feeling cynical about calls for radical transformations of how we work and for alternatives to traditional classrooms.
I don’t think I’ll ever underestimate the power of feedback again. Not being able to see pupils’ work as they are completing it and immediately respond to it has felt like teaching while blindfolded.
Listen to teachers
This year would have been a lot easier if people had listened to teachers. Over concerns about exams, whether a “recovery curriculum” was going to be necessary, the problems with mass testing, whether live lessons were better than pre-recorded ones … it was shown time and time again that teachers and school leaders knew what they were doing.
The children are incredible
Despite all the panic following the first lockdown all those months ago, in my experience, the vast majority of children came back to school unscathed, resilient and ready to learn.
Technology is not revolutionary
Over the 17 years I have been teaching, there has been a constant nattering narrative that technology is going to transform the profession. The past 12 months have shown that, while access to various bits of technology is useful, its utility is primarily in letting us teach how we would otherwise have taught.
This past year has been the toughest I have ever experienced, and I am fortunate enough to work in an amazing school and in an incredible community in which we were trusted to get on and do the best we could.
Perhaps that is the biggest lesson to take out of this pandemic: trust. If we trust each other – teachers, pupils, schools, communities – we can get through anything.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Powerful Geography: curriculum with purpose in practice, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark
This article originally appeared in the 19 March 2021 issue under the headline “Remote teaching: its highs, lows and the legacy it leaves"