The move to remote learning has been a limited success, but it also carries a great risk, both to students and to teachers, unless we focus on the right things.
Remote learning was and is a noble idea. It promises flexibility, independence and encourages resilient learners. Remote learning has also forced teachers to update their technological skills, enabling them to share, collaborate and use content in a much more efficient way.
This, surely, bodes well for the future of education and it prepares students for the real world, where companies increasingly encourage remote-working arrangements.
But, let’s be honest here. It’s not working, is it?
Consider all of the hours you put in: uploading new content, making sure your tasks are both classroom and home-friendly, checking homework, looking to see who the latest self-isolating students are, not to mention the CONSTANT emails/comments/messages from students and parents.
We can add to that, the fact that this increase in workload, coupled with the idea in the back of your mind that a parent could be “observing” you teach, can be panic-inducing and exhausting.
Then, there’s the additional pressure of student progress. Students who are at home tend to fall behind. That’s quite natural. After all, they haven’t had face-to-face lessons with their teacher. Joining in from home on some sort of “live link” just isn’t the same.
Not to mention the fact that they’ve had to share the family laptop with all of their siblings, who also need it for their own lessons. (Of course, this also assumes a best-case scenario, where there IS a family laptop.)
I’ll not even go into the problem of healthy, but self-isolating students who fail to attend morning lessons, simply because they’re still in bed.
So what can we do about it?
In complex situations like this, I find it useful to go back to first principles.
What is it that we truly value?
For many of us (and in no particular order, before this starts an #edutwitter pile-on) it is:
The health, wellbeing and education of our students.
Our own health, wellbeing and development, not just as teachers, but as human beings.
Simplifying our teaching, to address these two areas, can narrow the range of choices we need to make and will help us eliminate activities that take us further away from these values.
What should we prioritise?
Pastoral care of our students
Developing students’ subject knowledge, as far as we can, given today’s constraints
What should we not do?
Expect our students to be independent enough to cope without our help
Hold ourselves to unrealistic standards
This period won’t last forever. One day we might even look back on it like we do when we had that amazing “snow week” back in 2010.
Back then, we were cold, worried about our safety, we hadn’t seen our parents for a little while and we were more than a bit concerned about the panic-buyers in the shops.
Now, we just say “Remember when we had that snow week? That was weird, wasn’t it?”
Stick to what you value: Keep yourself healthy and teach as well as you can.
Remember: You aren’t in the same situation as you were in last year, so be kind to yourself and try not to compare your current teaching to how you used to do it or how you would like to. You can’t control everything (and you’re not meant to).
Some students aren’t remotely learning right now. We can help them by breaking down some of those barriers to learning, but we can’t force it to happen.
You are right to be optimistic though.
Teachers are good at optimism. It’s what drives us.
Just don’t let it drive you round the bend.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Leave a comment or send me a message @guruteaching on Twitter.
This article was written for the Education Blog at the Copyright Licensing Agency and published in September 2020, which you can read here.
Designing your A Level or GCSE curriculum is easy, if you are only concerned with teaching what is on the exam specification. But despite each board’s efforts, you might still end up with a relatively impoverished curriculum for your students. Obviously, exam boards can’t include everything on a given topic, covering it from all angles. But when we omit those different avenues of thought, we limit students’ understanding of the topic. Wider reading is therefore essential if we want our students to receive the best quality curriculum that we can offer.
In so many subjects, it is the default setting that subjects are studied from a Western European point of view. This is fine, to a degree. A lot of excellent scholarly work has been conducted by philosophers, historians, scientists and artists over the centuries. They have helped to form the culture(s) of the European continent and are therefore an excellent way to begin our study, or teaching of our subjects.
But theirs isn’t the only point of view. There is a much broader context and when we ignore this, we remove opportunities to understand both ourselves and other people. The lack of diversity in our curricula, over centuries, has led to misunderstanding and even intolerance of “minority” views. We have a duty to current and future generations to build upon the work that has been done in this area, so that our students can avoid narrow-minded views of the world and can see the world through the lenses of people beyond themselves.
This is the beauty of reading fiction, after all. We can lose ourselves in the worlds inhabited by the characters in our favourite novels. We do this by seeing through their eyes and by contemplating their experiences, values and motivations. In non-fiction, i.e. in our teaching of academic subjects, we can emulate this, by including a broader diversity of scholars than the ones we are typically presented with by exam boards.
A cursive glance over the scholars presented by most exam boards would indicate that the majority of scholars worth listening to or reading about are white European men. Is their experience more valid than the experiences of everyone else? What other unconscious messages does this send to our students? Are those messages even more damaging for our students who don’t fit into this narrow cultural bracket? Who are they supposed to relate to? Who should they take as their academic role models? This is difficult, but we should not shy away from dealing with it.
I propose a solution. It isn’t something that everybody will immediately accept, for a myriad of reasons. But it is a solution nevertheless: We should explicitly teach the work of a more diverse range of scholars, beyond those names in the exam specifications. To clarify, I mean teaching extra scholars, in addition to those named on the exam specifications, rather than instead of them. We cannot wait for specifications to be revised, to reflect greater diversity, as this happens too infrequently for our purposes here.
Sceptics will rightly point out, though, that adding a wider range of scholars requires more work to be completed by the teacher and the students and under the pressure of time. Sceptics will also rightly point out that you can get 100% in the exam, simply by mastering the named content and scholars on the specification, rendering this extra study unnecessary. Again, I completely understand, both as a classroom teacher and as an experienced examiner for both GCSE and A Level. I would add that there is also the vital issue of access to relevant and suitable materials, not to mention the gaps in our own subject knowledge as teachers.
But despite these issues, if we just pander to the “minimal effective dose” method of only teaching the specification, we do our students a disservice. They come to our schools and colleges for a deep, broad and rich education. Exam results are one important aspect of this, but they aren’t the entire thing. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that and think deeply about it, even if we already know it on a superficial level.
As far as our own subject knowledge goes, this could be the most significant barrier. Teachers (myself included) can get too used to being the “expert”. It’s a great feeling to know that you’ve mastered the teaching of the topics demanded by the exam board. After years of teaching the same specification over and over, you can become very comfortable (and justifiably so). However, we promote lifelong learning in our students. We teach students the value of education, both for practical reasons and for its own sake. It would be hypocritical if we didn’t also apply those principles to our own teaching. It might be time for us teachers to read more widely about our subjects.
After all, we are the champions of our subjects. We are the gate-keepers to the knowledge that our students can access. We shouldn’t limit their access to this knowledge by presenting only one section of it as the entire thing. It’s dishonest. We can do better.
I remember being a trainee teacher back in 2005 and going in to observe lessons. The lessons were pretty good, by whatever measure you might use. But I didn’t learn a lot from being there. Like someone with no technological knowledge inspecting the inside of a mechanical object, I just didn’t know what I was looking at.
I mention this because I think observing lessons is actually brilliant. I learn a lot from observing colleagues and I gain a lot from the feedback I receive, when they observe me. So why doesn’t this work for trainees, or even Early Career Teachers for that matter?
I think it comes down to experience. When an experienced teacher observes someone, they can watch the lesson and decide what they would do differently and why they would do it that way, drawing from their own classroom practice.
A trainee or inexperienced teacher cannot do this anywhere near as effectively or independently, in most cases. This is problematic for our trainees. We expect them to go into lessons, taught by our colleagues and expect them to soak up all of the good practice they witness, without realising that they simply aren’t equipped to do so.
So let’s equip them.
Here are some useful questions for trainees and Early Career Teachers to consider when observing. Hopefully, by getting them to reflect on their answers, we might help to focus their attention on what matters.
Lesson Observation Questions
Has the teacher demonstrated that they have high expectations for behaviour and progress? How did they convey this?
Does there appear to be a routine being followed? If so, what is it?
Is the classroom environment suited to the task? (e.g. grouped tables, equipment, use of space, etc)
How long does the teacher allow the students to work for, before checking progress?
Does the teacher model answers for the class? (If so, what was good about the modelling?)
What standard of answer does the teacher expect from the students?
How variable is the standard of answer from the students (and how does the teacher respond to this)?
When challenged by disruption, rudeness, etc, how does the teacher respond? How effective was the behaviour management strategy? (Did it work? Quickly?)
How many students are checked for progress during the lesson?
How often does the teacher ask questions? (What follow-up questions are asked?)
How could the students’ learning be stretched further?
How could the students’ learning be supported further?
Are strategies being implemented to teach specific groups, such as boys, Pupil Premium, SEND, high prior attaining students, etc?
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives students something to concentrate their attention on. When they begin their own teaching, these questions will naturally form part of the feedback on routines, expectations, behaviour, progress, differentiation and assessment. Having clear anecdotes to return to from their own observations, will help trainees and Early Career Teachers to compare their practice to the practice of experienced staff.
With any luck, they might even learn from us.
The one thing that all trainee teachers need to get to grips with early is effective behaviour management. Without this, learning suffers and so does the overall classroom experience of everyone involved. Mastering behaviour management strategies, therefore, no matter what school they teach in, is vital. Tom Bennett’s book, Running the Room, is THE perfect resource for solving behavioural issues as they arise and gives excellent advice on how to create a classroom culture where behaviour incidents are prevented before they happen.
This post is based on the talk I gave on 7 July 2020 at The Big Think teach meet, organised by Jo McShane, Senior Lecturer in Education and RE PGCE Lead at Sunderland University.
Teaching RE is and always has been a tricky business. Unlike most other subjects, where the topics are purely academic, RE brings with it a lot of very important baggage. I don’t mean baggage in the negative sense, although it can sometimes feel that way when things go wrong in the classroom. Instead, I mean that alongside the academic aspect of RE, there is also an intensely ‘personal’ aspect too.
RE has always been, for better or worse, THE subject that stirs up controversy. For one thing, it’s a statutory requirement to teach it in England. This sets some people’s teeth on edge (and not just atheists), as they often think that the time spent studying RE should be spent on other subjects that are “more worthwhile”, whatever that means to them (practical? career-related?).
Secondly, some people argue that RE shouldn’t be taught at all, as it involves the promotion, or at least the consideration, of beliefs that not everyone holds. Faith schools suffer this criticism the hardest of course, as they seek not only to inform, but also, to varying degrees, to evangelise and promote their own beliefs and practices.
Thirdly though, RE is often delivered by schools as an afterthought and not given the attention it deserves, regarding timetabled hours, specialist teachers, or is combined with other subjects like PSHE and Citizenship, removing RE’s distinctive nature and effectively diluting it and removing what makes it fascinating.
It is in reply to these issues that I write this post. RE is an incredible subject, worthy of study in its own right and is equal to, if not more important than other core subjects like English and Maths. This is a bold claim, but hear me out, I’ve spent my whole teaching career so far (since 2006) contemplating this idea. And we all know how much RE teachers love to contemplate. Anyway, I’ll get to that bit later on.
Right now, I want you to think about questioning. What questions do we ask in RE? Do we ask the right questions? Do we ask our questions in the right way? Why are we asking questions at all? These questions themselves are incredibly important, because in general, if you want to get better answers from your students, you really should ask better questions. But what does that look like?
What questions do we ask in RE?
In RE, we ask a lot of different types of questions. Some are purely academic, some much more vocational, often they are practical and more often than not they are philosophical, at least on some level. Understanding this whole range of question types and knowing when and how to ask better questions makes your day as an RE teacher fly by. By asking the right questions, in the right way, to the right students, at the right time, you create vibrant discussions and delve deeper and deeper into the lives and beliefs of people all over the world, but also and crucially, in your own classroom.
On the other hand, asking the wrong questions, at the wrong time, or to the wrong person and in the wrong way, can have devastating effects. The consequence of getting this wrong in RE is so much worse than if a teacher of Physics got it wrong. Not because Physics matters less, it’s clearly vital to have at least an appreciation of light, motion, forces, etc. It isn’t something someone is likely to be bullied for though. Unlike Physics, which is purely “physical” (the clue is in the name), RE explores the lives, beliefs, practices and motivations of people. It is spiritual, psychological, emotional. Students often cover up these hidden aspects of their lives between 9am and 3pm, for fear that they will be outed as different in some way. In RE you must ask your questions with extra care.
The types of questions, whether in examination papers, or in the classroom, vary tremendously, from straightforward definitions and descriptions of festivals, to explanations of beliefs and practices, to moral dilemmas and the value of religion in the 21st century.
But does it matter which of these we ask? It’s not as straightforward as yes or no. Clearly there are some topics which seem more central than others, so questions should be asked about those. But no matter what you decide to put in your curriculum, there will always be gaps. We just can’t teach all the intricacies of all the major world religions in a way that does them justice. Something has to give. But with carefully chosen questions, we can at least give students an excellent working knowledge of RE, that will help them navigate the subject, and their lives, with greater ease, satisfaction and joy.
It’s important to understand the different question-types that we use in RE, to ensure that we can deepen our students knowledge whilst helping them to understand the personal implications, socially, psychologically and spiritually, of the topics we teach. Using a broad range of question-types also helps us to identify gaps, not only in attainment, but also in our own curriculum, as we often realise that we’ve assumed prior learning has happened, when in fact it may not have done (even when we’ve taught it).
Why do we ask questions?
There are two main reasons why we ask questions.
Firstly, to get our students to think. If we want our students to build up both a good working and long-term memory of interconnected ideas, then we need them to think. Memory is the residue of thought, after all. I call these “thinking” questions.
Secondly, we ask questions to check understanding. This is an important distinction to make. These two reasons for asking questions are the ones that matter the most, when it comes to teaching. I call these “assessment” questions.
But, when it comes to asking these types of questions in class, we must be mindful of our reasons. It’s very easy to slip into a questioning style that looks like we are checking understanding, when actually we aren’t. Take for example, a typical lesson, where students have completed a task. You then ask a verbal question to the class, supposedly to check understanding. One student raises their hand politely and gives the correct answer. You ask the rest of the class, “does that make sense?”, to which they all reply “Yes”. In your head, as a teacher, you feel like you’ve completed that section of the lesson and can move on to the next one, confident that your job is done.
Except it isn’t. You can’t know that your job is done, because you only really know that one student out of thirty knows the answer. You might have caused the rest of the class to think, rather than assess them. You don’t have that information though from the questioning method you used.
Deep Singh Ghataura (@DSGhataura), someone who you really should follow on Twitter, if you’re interested in assessment says this: When you’re assessing students, you really must ask yourself two questions:
What do I want this assessment to tell me?
Given everything I know about learning, performance, memory and bias, how likely is it that this assessment satisfies Q1?
You absolutely must, therefore ensure that you do not make inferences that aren’t supported by the assessment data, e.g. that ALL students know “x”, just because one student showed they knew it.
This is why Professor Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam) advocates the use of hinge questions in your lesson, to check whether or not the class is ready to move on to the next thing. A hinge is a point in a lesson when a teacher needs to check whether or not students have grasped a key concept and are ready to move on to study another.
There are different ways you can use hinge questions in your lessons, some involving tech platforms like Plickers (show example on slide) and some simply using good old fashioned pen and paper/post-its.
A quick way to check understanding is by using a short multiple-choice question, or set of questions. Every student has to answer them independently and present their answers to the teacher, who can then see, at a glance, who has fully understood. The key to this is to ensure that students do not just copy their friends’ answers, as this invalidates the data you get.
You don’t need a 100% “pass rate” in order to move on, but you need it to be high enough that you are able to spend time with those who didn’t fully understood, whilst the rest of the class moves on. I’d recommend 90% or higher in most cases, given a class of thirty, as you may not have enough time to re-teach more than a small number of students the information, whilst making sure the new task is supported for the rest of the class.
For advanced questioners, I would recommend adding to at least one of your multiple-choice answers, a red-herring or a common misconception, as well as a slightly more obviously (to you) wrong answer. This does two things. It helps to show not only who got the right answer, but also, who nearly got it right and finally who just didn’t have a clue. Of course, some students may just guess correctly, but they won’t get away with it that easily, as this won’t be the only time you ask this multiple choice question, or variation of it. Remember: the most questions you ask, the more likely and more often the “correct-guessers” will be revealed, distinguishing them from the truly knowledgable.
Dylan Wiliam goes further and says that the crucial thing about creating useful hinge questions is that “kids cannot get it right for the wrong reason.” If they can, then you need to ask a better question, one that distinguishes between students who understand and students who don’t.
The key to this is designing your questions, carefully, in advance of the lesson. You don’t have the time to examine every students’ reasoning for each question you ask. The question should do it for you. Plan your questions in advance and remember, are you trying to assess your students’ knowledge or are you trying to get them to think? This might determine which questions you should ask them.
Useful question types to use in RE
Rank the order questions
Open and Closed Questions (BOTH are extremely useful)
Moral dilemma questions
A question you should ask (and also have a good answer to)
Why should we study RE?
For me, RE is the one subject which speaks not only to what is out there in the world and beyond (or not out there at all, depending on your faith-position), but it speaks to the nature of your own existence and purpose in the world. This can be attempted in a biological sense in Science lessons, but Science can only explain the “how” and not the “why” of existence.
Asking “How did we get here?” is not the same as asking “Why are we here?” The first question is scientific, or even historical. The second question requires us to think about our purpose, our motivations, what we ought to be doing, rather than simply what we are doing. It invites us to examine our lives as persons, not just as a species or category of life-forms.
The study of RE encourages us to pursue what distinguishes us from the animal kingdom (so far as we know) and to explore what Aristotle described as the “intellectual virtues” and to be self-reflective, treading the virtuous middle path between the vices of excess and deficiency. This is what it means to be human beings, in the fullest sense, as persons, not just mammals with a particular genetic code. We are emotional, critical and social. But we are also story-tellers and empathisers. We judge ourselves and others on factors not linked to the basics of survival, sex and food. We plan for the long-term (not just within one lifetime either) and not just for immediate gain. We search for meaning, beyond the empirical and the immediately obvious.
We can, of course, find isolated examples of this sort of behaviour in the natural world, but nowhere near the same scale and with the same regularity that humans do it. We’re more than just biological creatures. Comparing humans and animals is like comparing a 10-second doodle on a napkin to Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sure, the doodle might have some interesting or redeeming feature, but really, there’s no contest.
If you would like a copy of my presentation on Asking Better Questions in RE (to accompany this blogpost), then just contact me on Twitter and I’ll get back to you.
This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in April 2020. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
Teachers are getting used to remote working – supporting pupils and families with education during the coronavirus lockdown. Andy McHugh offers some dos and don’ts for teaching staff
Everything has changed. Only last month, we were going about our normal business, walking down jam-packed corridors, peering over students’ exercise books and sitting in close proximity to our colleagues over a cuppa during breaktime.
Most of us had no idea that the world of education would be turned on its head. We moved from having little personal space for several hours a day, to being in isolation (no mention of booths please) during a national coronavirus lockdown.
Yet the world still turns and we are still teaching. Well, sort of. Perhaps not everything has changed, at least not yet.
Without notice, teachers have had to move online. For some, the move has been fairly straightforward. Depending on the school you work in, or your own proficiency in IT, you might already be used to Google Classroom, Class Charts, Education City, Mathletics and the like.
But not all of us are. Not only that, we all use these tools in different ways. This is not necessarily a problem, variety is the spice of life after all. But with a varied education delivery system you will also have variance in the quality of what is provided.
There will inevitably be some ways that tend to work better than others, in most contexts. But at the same time, we need to understand that there are methods of delivery that might be, in most cases, more effective for the students in terms of what they learn.
There are also ways to deliver effective teaching in an efficient way, removing needless workload from teachers, who in many cases are simultaneously looking after their own children.
With this juggling act in mind, I propose a few dos and don’ts regarding working remotely. They are to be adhered to strictly or taken with a pinch of salt – it is completely up to you. Your own context is central here.
Do: Plan the tech as well as the subject content
If you are going to commit to teaching remotely, then you need to have a plan. It is no different to planning a traditional scheme of work, with subject content to cover, regular low-stakes quizzes and summative assessment at the end.
Not only that, you might have to also teach your students how to use the various apps and online platforms where the work will be accessed and submitted. It is all well and good telling students that the work is on Google Classroom, but if they do not know how to submit an assignment, or answer a quiz on a Google Form, then you are wasting your time.
Plan some basic how-to tutorials, or use one of the many walk-throughs that are available online. That way, the new content delivery system will not become a barrier to learning.
Do: Keep it simple
Using technology to teach can be very distracting. Education apps gain extra functionality with each week that ticks by and there are more online platforms than you can shake your mouse at.
It is easy to succumb to “shiny object syndrome” and try to sample them all in your teaching. But this adds unnecessary complexity. Try to stick to one “ecosystem”, be it Google, Microsoft, or whatever. If you must use something subject-specific, such as Mathletics, or Times Tables Rock Stars, then stick to it for a sustained period before you switch to another platform.
One of the major issues faced by parents who want to support their child’s learning is that they tire very quickly of having to remember a dozen log-in details and another dozen ways to navigate the software set by the class teacher.
If you can, try to collaborate across different subjects, so that as many subjects can use the platform. Education City and SAM Learning are popular choices for this very reason, as they house multiple subjects within one system. One log-in to rule them all.
Do: Create or curate an independent learning resource bank
Students who take to remote learning like a duck to water will run out of tasks quicker than you can upload them. They need stretching. With that in mind, create a bank of online (or even offline) resources that will push them beyond the standard tasks you set, encouraging them to broaden and deepen their knowledge.
These resources could be links to specific articles, YouTube videos, banks of exam practice questions, quizzes, or even open-ended tasks that ask students to write in greater detail, but giving them full creative control.
By doing this, you allow students to take greater ownership of their learning and you can push them to take on greater levels of challenge. These tasks must be meaningful though. They should inspire students further, not just take up their free time. Think killer, not filler.
Do: Contact your students
Teaching is a social activity. So to teach remotely can be a little daunting – and not only for the teachers. Students need contact, via whole-class feedback and also on a one-to-one level. Many students need that interaction, not only to guide them, but also to give them the confidence to keep going when they are unsure of the path they have taken.
For many students, the fact that an adult has taken the time to think about their work and given them useful feedback is invaluable. For some students, this might be one of the few positive interactions they have with an adult in their life. Whether teaching online or offline, nothing has changed in that regard.
Don’t: Expect your students to complete five to six hours of work each day
The rigour of the school timetable makes it easier for students to work for five to six hours each day on a range of tasks. After all, they are supervised and have relatively few distractions. Not only that, but their timetable sets out what they should be focusing on during each hour of the day.
Remote learning does not quite work that way. Students can come and go as they please. Not only that, but many students, at this time in particular, are taking on domestic duties while their parents work. Family time is also vital during this worrying period and must be encouraged.
This makes it totally impractical for us to expect the same sort of working patterns that we experience in school.
And while we cannot and should not expect students to work a full “school” day, neither can we expect them to complete a normal school day’s work in one or two hours.
This is an uncomfortable truth for so many of us who have sought to promote “high expectations” as a tried and tested route to success. Right now, we must remember that this is an emergency and we are all doing our best. So accept that delivering the full school curriculum for six hours a day via remote learning is not our goal and is not even feasible.
Email was never designed to be an instant messenger service. If you treat it like one, then it can become unmanageable. By all means, encourage your students to email you questions. However, it is sometimes useful to set parameters regarding when you will respond to emails.
For example, you might set out to answer all questions within 24 hours, but only between 8am and 6pm on weekdays. Sharing this protocol with students helps them to understand why their query sent on Friday night at 8pm did not get answered until Monday morning at 10am.
You, the teacher, will not feel guilty about not answering and the student will not have watched their inbox for 72 hours straight.
If you do want to operate an instant response type of service – perhaps a trouble-shooting or FAQs session – then schedule a time with students when they know you will be available on your school email or via the school learning platform to answer queries. That way, you and your inbox will not be overburdened.
Remember, union advice is to never use your personal email, social media or instant messaging services with students – stick to school email or other school communication systems so that all is recorded and safeguarding requirements satisfied.
Don’t: Put off learning new ways of working
There is something terrifying and exciting about having to work in a completely new way. As teachers, we get used to our favourite ways of doing things. But sometimes we work harder than we should. By using technological tools, we can reduce planning through collaborating, live on a single document, with colleagues. We can generate and duplicate materials with very little effort. We can create self-marking quizzes that even give specific feedback. But most of us have not done it before. At least not yet. So, here is your chance. Do what your own teachers told you to do. Keep pushing yourself – in that sense, nothing has changed.