The past year has been the strangest I have experienced in 17 of teaching. It has also been one of the most challenging.
Close to two decades in the classroom mean that I have developed enough expertise to deal with whatever is thrown at me. I can field questions, re-plan lessons, deal with disruption and quickly conjure up extension activities, all with a minimum of thought. Much of what I do has become automated through having done it dozens of times before.
The problem is: I hadn’t done remote teaching before and the learning curve has been steep.
Remote learning challenges
My initial thoughts on remote learning were that I would try to replicate the conditions of the classroom as much as I could. I’d set work according to their timetable, expect them to complete it at that time and be available to answer questions and check on their work as it was being completed. This, after all, is what works in the classroom. But we are not in the classroom.
It quickly became apparent that remote teaching needed a completely different pedagogy to that which we used in more normal times. Not all pupils could complete the work at the time it was set, often because they were having to share devices between different members of a family, all trying to complete work at the same time.
The same thing was happening at my end, where technological glitches would often mean people having to borrow a laptop or hope the wi-fi going down was just a temporary blip.
Instead, it made more sense to set the work at the start of the day, or even at the start of the week, then set aside time to look at and give feedback on work as pupils were able to complete it. I could then use this to guide what work I was setting in the following week.
It was also clear that what was missing from remote learning was the magic of the classroom. I don’t think I had realised just how much I was relying on non-verbal cues from my pupils when I was teaching.
When in the room, we are always scanning the class, picking up on who is distracted or struggling with our explanation. While pupils are working, we are circling and checking work, picking up on misconceptions and deftly deciding when to hurry a class up or slow them down so that they think more deeply about a task. No remote learning platform is able to achieve these things and, without them, conventional teaching falls apart.
This failure to mimic what happens in the classroom is probably why the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) found that there was no benefit in carrying out remote teaching via live lessons over teaching via materials that have been prepared in advance. Instead, they found that what mattered was the quality of the materials used to teach remotely.
This certainly mirrors my own experience. Pupils were performing much better after the first couple of weeks as I developed a better understanding of how to explain things in this new medium, making better use of narration and video clips embedded in PowerPoint presentations and in-task instructions.
The EEF also points to the importance of continued peer discussion in remote learning, something that can be achieved through the use of forums on many virtual learning environments (VLEs), such as Firefly, or through the use of sharing platforms such as Google Docs. These have allowed pupils to continue to share their ideas and have those ideas challenged. It has also been more accessible than attempting to do this through a live-chat function, as pupils can access the discussion whenever they have access to the technology.
This EEF report suggests that teachers need to monitor the work that pupils are doing and to give strategies to help pupils who are struggling. This again chimes with my own experience. I have found that I have had to be much more precise in the explanation of what I need my pupils to do and I have had to put a series of structures and prompts in place that signal what they should do if they get stuck.
Essentially, I have needed to ask myself what the potential barriers are to someone completing each task, then work to remove each and every one of them. Doing this has ensured that most pupils have completed the work.
This period has taught me that nothing will ever replace the magic of the classroom. There is something great about putting an expert in their subject in a room with a group of people who are ready to learn.
It has also taught me that trying to replicate this magic is a mistake. Instead, we need to find a new pedagogy that overcomes some of the weaknesses of remote learning and allows our classes to continue to enjoy their learning wherever and whenever it takes place.
This is what works for me:
- Don’t be fooled into thinking that live lessons beat prepared materials. Consider whether all pupils will be able to access a live session.
- Focus on the quality of input. As remote learning continues, we will need to introduce them to new ideas. Make use of video clips, diagrams and recorded narration from you to give a well-scripted explanation of anything they haven’t encountered before.
- Give opportunities for dialogue. One way pupils develop their understanding is through having their ideas challenged and having to justify them. Make use of forums and shared documents to keep the discussion going.
- Give support and feedback. Consider the problems of potential barriers that pupils may have with completing work. Ask what they might not understand. Remove those barriers and clarify those areas. Look at the work pupils are completing and give feedback – even as a whole class rather than on each individual piece of work.
- Monitor pupils’ work and hold them to account. Check what work is being completed and what is outstanding, and follow up. Ask if pupils need any help or further support. If nothing else, it is a good opportunity to make sure they are OK.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His most recent book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark