Coronavirus and education: Making the most of remote teaching (part one)

This is the first of two articles offering advice on making a success of remote teaching.

In March, when schools were closed due to the coronavirus, I offered some advice about how to manage the continuation of learning, both for those pupils who’ll still attend school and those who’ll now learn from home.

I said we needed to consider the following groups of pupils:

• The children of key frontline workers who will be in school so their parents can provide essential public services
• The most vulnerable learners – pupils with Education Health and Care Plans, and those who, for a variety of reasons, have social workers – who will also continue attending school so they can be fed and kept safe from harm
• Other vulnerable learners – those with SEND who do not qualify for EHCPs and those on the fringes of agency support who we, as teachers, know are at risk but who are not officially in receipt of specialist support
• All other pupils who will now study at home.

In that article, I posed more questions than answers because, I said, each school must make their own decisions about what they think is right for their pupils and their contexts.

That fact remains: context matters. But we know more about what is and is not proving effective so I’d now like to offer more tangible advice on what form home learning should take as we ‘return’ from the Easter break…

First, though, a word of warning…

At the time of writing, the government is debating three possible dates for re-opening schools: at the end of the current lockdown extension (11 May), immediately after the Spring Bank half term (early June), and after the summer holiday (early September).

If I were a betting man, I’d stake my house on the fact that schools will remain closed at least until the beginning of June and possibly until September, and so home-schooling has to be regarded as the new normal.

But the term ‘home schooling’, though ubiquitous, is, I think, a misnomer…

No one should expect parents to ‘school’ their children in the sense of following the national curriculum. ‘Purposeful home study’ may be more appropriate.

And even then, we’ve got to be realistic about what can be achieved in the short-term and about our pupils’ – and their parents’ – capacity to focus on complex curriculum content during these unusual and anxious times.

Many parents are combining ‘home-schooling’ with working from home and that’s a tricky balance to strike. I’m a qualified teacher with over twenty years’ experience in education and I’m finding it hard, so my heart goes out to non-teaching parents.

Even schools which continue to open their doors for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable pupils in our society are not teaching in the traditional sense. Indeed, the government has suspended the requirement for schools to teach the national curriculum and most schools I’ve spoken to are providing childcare – with many running sports and crafts activities – not education, and only doing so for a handful of pupils.

So, we should be wary of putting undue pressure on our pupils and their parents/carers to follow a normal school day and to achieve as much as they would normally do.

With this in mind, I’d suggest that our first priority should be to try help parents to keep their children physically and mentally healthy.

In terms of keeping physically healthy, we’d do well to encourage daily exercise. There are plenty of online workout videos to choose from (my 9-year-old follows a YouTube tutorial most days which, if measured in sweat, is very successful).

In terms of keeping mentally healthy, we might encourage parents to manage the information they share with their children with regards the coronavirus. We could provide mindfulness activities, too.

We should remember that our pupils are likely to miss their classmates and so, if possible, we should find ways of helping them to safely maintain contact with their friendship groups – for example, via Microsoft Teams.

One other way in which we can help to support our pupils’ physical and mental wellbeing is to encourage parents to establish a routine including what time children get up, get dressed and have breakfast.

Although this is not ‘business as usual’ and, as I say above, we should not expect pupils to study a ‘normal’ curriculum, pupils do need to be reminded that they are not on holiday and need to ‘attend’ online learning sessions, work hard and meet deadlines.

We might encourage pupils to work to a timetable – but, if so, we need to be cautious and pragmatic about this. Not all pupils will be able to stick to a rigid plan and many will lack the support or home environment conducive to such a formal approach.

If we do adopt a timetable approach, BBC Bitesize could help. From Monday 20 April, the BBC is running ‘Bitesize Daily’ lessons for all ages and key stages, following a weekly timetable. This is available via iPlayer and the ‘red button’ service, as well as online and on BBC Sounds. The BBC’s content has been produced in partnership with the DfE and is provided by teachers so we can be reasonably confident of its quality and relevance.

Oak National Academy have also used DfE funding to produce, with the help of 40 teachers from across the country, a comprehensive online package of lessons which might help populate a timetable.

Instead of a rigid timetable, however, I would advise we provide pupils with a list of tasks to be completed by the end of the day or week, rather than time-stamped ‘lessons’ such as ‘9am English, 10am Maths, etc.’, because those timings may become a millstone around our – and their – necks.

A ‘to-do’ list approach will also afford children – and their parents – some control over what they do and when, and that element of choice should help to motivate them. If they get bored of their maths worksheet, they can stop and play some educational games or follow an exercise video and come back to the maths later in the day.

Whatever approach is taken, we need to allow plenty of free time for games and practical, creative activities. If we can encourage parents to combine the work that we set with educating children about household tasks and home economics, as well as current affairs, then all the better.

What else should we consider as we set work for the term ahead..?

Variety

We want to ensure that the work we set is varied, both in terms of fulfilling a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum, and in the form and format it takes.

For example, although there are many excellent online platforms and services, we want to manage children’s’ screen time. We also need to be cognisant of the fact that some pupils will not have a device or internet access. Although, on 19 April, the government announced a scheme to give electronic devices to disadvantaged pupils, along with 4G routers, this may take time to fulfil and some pupils may still fall through the net.

It would be wise, therefore, not only to provide digital resources for those in need, but also to ensure some work is paper-based and/or requires children to be active, moving around the house.

Autonomy

We should be mindful that many children will not have support at home and so we should not rely on parents being able to help.

As well as providing a means for pupils to seek help from us, their teachers, we should try to ensure most work can be completed independently and the best form of independent work is retrieval practice – in other words, the active revision of prior learning.

Workload

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel – not least because to do so in time-consuming during a period of anxiety for teachers. Therefore, we should make full use of all the free resources available to us – and SecEd has published two comprehensive lists to help [link]. In addition, as mentioned above, Oak National Academy and the BBC have just this week published comprehensive sets of resources.

We should also make use of existing learning plans and resources in school, not regard the situation as a blank canvas. Do we have work already on our VLEs we can use? Can we tweak existing schemes of work and lesson plans for home learning?

We should not forget the basic principles of home-learning, namely that:

• Home learning should be clearly related to what pupils have been doing in school
• Home learning should be varied and manageable
• Home learning should be challenging but not too difficult
• Home learning should allow for individual initiative and creativity
• There should a mechanism for pupils to receive guidance and support, and for recognition or reward for work done.

Here are my top 5 tips for making a success of home learning…

1. Explain it

Although it may be possible, particularly for small cohorts of older students, to make a success of video-conferencing using Skype or Zoom, say, in which the teacher delivers a ‘live’ interactive lesson and in which students participate, it’s hard to get this right and, for many pupils, it will only distract them from their learning.

When pupils interact online, it’s also important to consider the safeguarding implications. More widely, when pupils communicate via the internet, there are a number of online harms we need to consider, including:

• child sexual abuse
• exposure to radicalising content
• youth-produced sexual imagery (‘sexting’)
• cyberbullying
• exposure to age-inappropriate content, such as pornography
• exposure to harmful content, such as suicide content

For more advice on keeping children safe online, visit the NSPCC at https://www.nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/online-safety/

Although live videoconferencing is a minefield, pre-recorded video can be used effectively to deliver teacher explanations.

Here, the videos are made available for pupils to watch at a time suitable to them, but within set timescales. It is possible on some platforms to monitor who ‘attends’ each video (and watches in full) to ensure full participation.

The videos usually work best when they are short, focused on a small amount of information at a time, given in clear steps, and when the explanations is concise.

I’ve learned from experience that teaching via video is very different to standing in front of a class.

For example, I’ve learned that explanations should be delivered in short chunks, with longer pauses for punctuation than you would ordinarily think to give when face-to-face with pupils. The language needs to be simpler, too, and body language should be kept simple.

It also works best when you complement a video of yourself talking with slides and other materials. In order to achieve this, most platforms allow you to share your screen.

It might be helpful to provide a knowledge organiser – via Google Docs, say – before pupils watch the video on which pupils can make notes (see below) and perhaps complete a pre-quiz to activate prior learning and assess starting points.

As with teacher explanations delivered in the classroom, direct instruction via video works best when it includes metaphors and analogies because this enables the teacher to contextualise new information so that abstract ideas or hitherto alien concepts are made concrete, tangible, and so that they are connected to pupils’ own lives and experiences.

Video-based explanations also tend to work best when the teacher makes effective use of dual coding. In other words, verbal instructions are paired with and complemented by visuals such as diagrams, charts, graphics and moving images.

Here, Loom is a useful tool because it allows teachers to record their explanations over the top of presentation slides, a virtual whiteboard or other text-based resources, and to do so in ‘real time’ and in a natural manner. Zoom also allows teachers to ‘share their screen’ so that they can complement their verbal instruction with visual resources.

2. Note it

Once pupils have watched a video, they should be required to write about what they’ve learned.

As I say above, we might support this process by providing a knowledge organiser in advance, or perhaps just a simple, partially pre-populated Cornell note-taking pro-forma.

Writing about your learning is a form of self-explanation which is proven to be an effective study aid.

Whether pupils use a partially pre-populated worksheet or just write freehand in a Google Doc, say, is up to you and will be informed by the pupils’ ages and abilities.

The key is to ensure pupils write in order to learn and that this writing is shared with you and possibly the whole class.

Mind-maps and other visual aids might also be used, in addition to notes, to help pupils process and structure their thoughts.

A health-warning, though: If you expect pupils to use something like Cornell, it’s important they are taught how to do so first.

If research and study skills were not explicitly taught before schools closed, it can be done via a short video tutorial now and it might be worth curating a digital library of short ‘how-to’ videos on generic skills like this. You’ll find some online but may favour recording your own.

The final product is not necessarily important, though; rather, it’s the act of writing about one’s learning that matters here…

Steve Graham, Sharlene A. Kiuhara, and Meade MacKay from Arizona State University and the University of Utah recently performed a meta-analysis (which you can read here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0034654320914744) called The Effects of Writing on Learning in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics in which they examined if students’ writing about content material in science, social studies, and mathematics facilitated learning.

They concluded that writing about content reliably enhanced learning (effect size = 0.30). It was equally effective at improving learning in science, social studies, and mathematics as well as the learning of primary and secondary school pupils.

Matt

@mj_bromley

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