Could coronavirus lead to real 21st-century learning?

The prospect of conducting remote lessons is challenging, but it's also potentially freeing. It may be time to throw out the timetable, says Yvonne Williams

Two schoolchildren, receiving e-lessons on their laptops at home

In the wake of the news that schools are to close for all but the children of key workers, we are all preparing for lockdown. 

For some schools, it means distributing project work for pupils, which may or may not get done. Others will keep rigidly to the established arrangements for classes and subjects online. 

In between, there will be permutations of these practices, constrained only by the IT expertise of teachers and the provision of equipment in the home. 

Most schools are likely to keep the virtual session as close as possible to normal practice. Work is prepared, set and marked in the usual pattern. 

If everyone is on-task in the same time compartments as they would normally expect to be, it should ensure that there is no slacking. Parents can trust that their children will be occupied, and can get on with either their routine jobs outside the home, or they can work online as their children’s attention will be fruitfully occupied. 

On paper, this all sounds very sensible, especially if you want to maintain normality. The education service will simply carry on in the home. 

Preparing for a lockdown

The reality of preparing for a lockdown certainly focuses the mind. Staring at my timetable, I ask myself:

  • How do we suddenly reshape, rewrite or create from scratch new materials to keep pupils occupied, when our usual classroom practice has been either heavily teacher-dependent or very interactive?
  • How can learning remotely be neatly portioned into 30-, 40-, 50- or 60-minute slots, when some pupils work faster than others? 
  • What is the best sequence? It’s very hard to pick up feedback when you can’t see your pupils’ faces. 
  • How can I check that all work is being attempted? (How much time will pupils spend on their phones while trying to complete the activities set?) 
  • Is feedback well-pitched and sufficiently frequent to motivate pupils to keep up?
  • To complicate matters, not all classes in a year group will be timetabled at the same point. Post feedback too early, and the answers can be shared via group chat with those who have yet to access the lesson. I know that my classes have their own cyberspace to share anxieties and solutions. All the shirkers have to do is to post the right answers, with little learning involved. No doubt I should be glad they are so collaborative and supportive of each other. Which gets me thinking: have I considered that the collaboration online can work for – as well as against – the teacher? Could I make the time spent on the phone an interactive focused session, rather than an illicit five minutes off-task? 
  • Are pupils coping emotionally? We forget how comforting the teacher-pupil relationship can be, not to mention the physical company of peer groups.
  • What support can teachers provide? Or, as pupils are in their own homes and most parents are also confined to the house, perhaps it’s time to shift the emotional load back to the home.

Smashing the timetable

The school timetable is a structure like a Rubik’s cube. It operates in codependent multi-dimensions, to get teachers, pupils, resources and room to coincide at the right moment in time. You need real spatial awareness to be a timetabler. Get one thing out of kilter and the rest suffers a misalignment. 

It doesn’t have to be the same when a class is learning at home. No longer do you have the problem of fitting classes into physical spaces. So why not make the most of this new freedom?

Perhaps all classes in a year group could have the same lessons at the same time, to ease pressure on planning. One colleague could set the lesson. This would make it easier to cover for a colleague who falls sick, and cut down the overall workload. 

Some lessons could be longer, to accommodate a more extended task. How often do we lament having to stop and re-start a task which doesn’t quite fit into its slot? Think of the time it takes to get back on course. 

We might even expand a lesson into homework time, and get the learning completed with teacher in tow. It reduces the problem of pupils who forget what the task was between the end of the lesson and the beginning of homework time, and cuts down the evening emails when teachers are expected to respond, sometimes at length. 

Travel time, usually so unproductive, can be used to complete homework and there is more leisure at the end of the day.

Teachers and subject leaders are under immense time pressure to provide a coherent learning experience. To make a positive out of a very complicated situation, we need to reach out to other colleagues, exploit the IT training we have (even if it’s very rusty) and set up new collaboration spaces. 

Who knows, out of these interesting times might come a set-up more appropriate to the 21st century. 

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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