Reflecting on … supporting our students remotely

Version 1 of this blog was shared as we closed the school on March 20th.  Thank you to everyone who has contributed their experiences over the first two weeks of remote learning.  The blog is substantially the same, but I have been able to add some more suggestions and ideas based on these.  As many comments related to giving feedback, I have gathered some ideas about workload-friendly feedback strategies in a separate blog.

For an indeterminate amount of time, we are going to have to support students’ learning remotely as best we are able.  Were this a good way for them to learn we would, of course, do this far more as part of our normal practice.  The gap in achievement between PA students and those in school would also be much smaller.  However we know that remote learning cannot replace the classroom experience.  The dialogue, constant feedback that teachers get from reading faces and body language, circulating the room and asking questions are all missing or much-reduced.  We rely considerably more on students asking questions and effectively making their own “hinge” decisions, which we know many will struggle to do.  However research does give us some guidance as to how to make the best of this situation and some particular pitfalls to avoid over the coming weeks.  These are the principles I intend to follow in working with my classes:

 

 

  • The “Matthew Effect”

(Matthew 12.29:  “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”)

The Matthew Effect applies to lots of things in life and is best paraphrased as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.  This is a particular concern of remote learning.  We know that some of our students will be diligent in logging on, completing the work and submitting it for feedback.  This may be from their own motivation, but in a lot of cases it will be because of the structures and support around them.  Some of our students will lack that support and drive; perhaps they have never had it, or they have parents working or struggling with sick relatives and so it is not available at this moment.  For those, the gap in learning may grow dramatically.  This in itself is a good reason to minimise new and overly challenging content delivery.  As a result I plan to:

  1. Maintain a careful track of students who are engaged with the learning and those who do not seem to be managing it. There may be little I can do at this stage to address it, but when students are back in school we can plan careful support and interventions for those who have fallen behind.
  2. Record live lessons so that students who are not available at that particular time have full access to the learning. Don’t forget some families are sharing computers or internet access so we cannot assume that all or students, even in Sixth Form will be available at “normal” lesson times.
  3. Ensure you update the central spreadsheet so that tutors can make efforts to reach out to families, by email or ‘phone where work is not happening. This will remind them that we’re still working and on hand to offer support (even remotely) and encourage them to engage with the work.  We know that children work less well when no-one is looking – it may help them to be reminded that we are looking and do care.

 

We are now operating a whole school approach to this which is fantastic and tutors are keeping in touch with students who are struggling.  One key tip is to set deadlines that support this – if you ask for work to be submitted on Wednesday or Thursday then you can update the tracking sheet on Friday.  Tutors can then start the week with calls on Monday and Tuesday and remain up-to-date.

 

  • Feedback

AfL is one of the most important things we do, still rates as the highest impact strategy in the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.  But many of the tools we need to make this work are being stripped away: students won’t be in front of us to produce work, we cannot run question-and-answer sessions and we cannot chase missing “homework”.  However we can mark work which is sent to us and we can do our best to give all students useful feedback.  Therefore I have told my older students that I will:

  1. Use live marking and chat facilities on Google to engage with them whilst they are learning. When we know what the situation is with key workers I will publish a timetable of my availability so that they do know how they can get hold of me for question-and-answer sessions and interaction through documents if needed.  Don’t forget to share live learning with students who cannot be present when you can, recording audio sessions and sharing document.
  2. Design and create regular quizzes of short answer/multiple-choice questions for SMHW. These are easy to mark, will guide me on what work to set and give me a quick shapshot of engagement whenever I want.  They will also be useful homework activities for the future, so will reduce my workload when students do return.

For younger students and bigger classes the workload to deal with large quantities of written work submitted remotely is proving significant.  I have therefore put together a separate blog on key strategies to manage this.

 

  • Students will struggle to master new content.

Learning new content can be incredibly difficult for students. We all know they bring all sorts of misconceptions and preconceptions to their learning that we carefully plan for in lessons, and probe for in our questioning and discussions.   The power of their pre-existing ideas (even if erroneous) can distort new information leading to further misunderstanding.  With this in mind I intend to:

  1. Minimise the amount of new content I deliver to students remotely.
  2. Replan and rewrite resources with remote learning in mind wherever I do try to deliver material. I know that if I just “send out” the material I would have used in lessons it will lack all the explanation and clarify I would have offered.
  3. Carefully select which topics I deliver: even if out-of-order I know there are certain topics that students will be able to understand and which lead to fewer misconceptions than others.  I will therefore “pick” these out of the curriculum to deliver remotely and start planning how to knit together the bigger picture when students return.
  4. Add a range of instructional methods to my resources that students can access: g. carefully produce or select some text, identify a good video, look for a website that covers the material as well.  That way if they struggle to comprehend one way they can look to a range of sources.

 

  • The most effective independent study involves students reviewing and recalling material or practising skills.

 

This is the principle upon which we set homework and we have regularly commented on how much students have to learn for the new GCSEs.  Rather than too much new content I intend to:

  1. Focus on revision and retention of powerful knowledge (Key Stage 3) and material already covered (KS4 and 5).
  2. Use extensive knowledge testing and revision guidance to ensure that this is thoroughly embedded and that students have a strong mastery.
  3. To promote engagement give extension work that builds on this, with new reading, case studies and resources, in favour of brand new content. This will give students the chance to extend their thinking and build their expertise without creating and unbridgeable content “gap” with those struggling to work online.
  4. Produce and carefully model skills for students so that they can practice these at home. Some teachers are already well ahead of me in terms of producing and sharing short skills videos with their students as a form of modelling … now it is my goal to master this technology and start to deliver it to my students.  Again, these will also be an investment in future learning.

 

  • Supporting students with SEND

For students with SEND trying to work without teacher and TA support is a particular challenge. A significant number of our high need students struggle to manage homework independently and so use the support of homework club to complete “independent” study normally.  They are therefore likely to struggle with remote learning more than most. 

However there are some core strategies that will help them:

  1. Ensure tasks are clearly broken down.  If setting a project or a chunk of work at once ensure that they have a clear breakdown of tasks to complete.  Don’t set work for several lessons without breaking down what they should be achieving in each lesson.  We are asking that for years 7-10 work should be set for every lesson on SMHW.  So instead of setting a single piece of work for the next 4-5 lessons, post each lesson’s activities separately, even if you are not expecting submission until the whole project is completed.  You can do this in one sitting on SMHW with the work released remotely on the date you choose, so this does not require you as a teacher to log in every single time you would have had a lesson.
  2. Deploy command words carefully. Try to use consistent vocabulary and give clear models so that students know what they are aiming for.  Guide students very closely on the outcome:  should they answer all the questions? Should they do as many as they can in an hour? Should they spend x amount of time on each one and then send you the work even if unfinished?  Do not forget that they may take longer to complete the work than some students: in class we are there to support and the bell draws efforts to an end.  How will you support them to manage this at home?
  3. It is possible to target sub-groups with different tasks on SMHW but this is not necessarily something you will be able to manage easily if you have not done this before. However, you could attach additional resources or instructions for all students that direct them on actions to take “If you are struggling with this work…”.  It could be an alternative task or resource they can use, or a hint sheet to be opened if needed.
  4. Vocabulary lists – do not forget to share these wherever possible to support students with understanding the work and tasks you are setting. Don’t assume that because you posted one once they will remember to access it; far better to post it with every piece of work set or, if stored remotely (e.g. in your Google Classroom) to constantly remind students of its presence. 

 

  • Live lessons

For many students, especially in older years, teachers have been able to run live lessons and presentations using Google facilities.  If you are doing this please remember the following:

  1. All videos should be turned off (teacher and students) and the meeting should be recorded in case any later issues arise.
  2. Maintain professional language and behaviour throughout. If any students do not do this or are behaving inappropriately remove them from the meeting and alert their Head of Key Stage and your faculty leader who can contact them to explain the ground rules and ensure they can access learning appropriately.
  3. Record any live lessons for students who cannot attend (see above).

 

There is no way that we can pretend learning over the next few months will be anything like normal.  When the students return there will be gaps between groups of students like very little we have previously seen.  We will have to do a lot of careful thinking about how to deliver the rest of the curriculum and transfer all the powerful knowledge we would have been teaching students over the next few weeks to other points in the curriculum.  But the research does offer us some guidance that can help us do our best to meet our students’ needs.

 

As I plan work, I will be asking myself the following questions to help me refine the activities as best I can:

  • Will the students be able to master this material: what support would they have needed in class and have I adjusted for that as remote learning?
  • How will I know if the students who have tried this have struggled, even if they don’t directly tell me? How will I assess this remotely and encourage and motivate them if they have found it hard?
  • What is the plan to pick up on this with the students who do not access it? How will I support them on their return to school?

As we work over the next few weeks I intend to review my practice as I go and revise and edit this piece.  A lot of this is new to all of us.  At the moment this is new – we have only our intuition (honed by our experience) and the research to guide us.  But all research is context dependent … we know our students and are going to learn a lot more in coming weeks.  Please do share things you find to work well, or things you find not to work with me as we go, so that I can pool our collective wisdom. 

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