Effective Remote Learning Strategies

Effective Remote Learning Strategies

This article is a transcript of a training session on Effective Remote Learning Strategies, which I delivered to Religious Education PGCE students at the University of Sunderland on 28 Jan 2021.

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The Nature of Remote Learning: How Different Is It?

Remote learning, remote teaching, remote schools. It’s all different. As much as we can try to emulate what we ordinarily do in the classroom, there is something distinctly different about teaching via a screen. 

We can’t see each other a lot of the time. Either the video isn’t working, or someone’s got their camera turned off. Maybe our students don’t want everyone to be able to see into their homes. Maybe we don’t either! 

But the upshot of it is that we don’t have that crucial interaction with other people, seeing their facial expressions, watching to see when their attention span might be dipping. Seeing whether Tyler is copying again, or doing his own work this week. We also can’t tell whether or not Sarah is sleeping during her lesson, or whether she’s slept at all for the past couple of days. 

What we do as teachers, when trying to educate our students is incredibly complex. You will be focused on developing your pedagogy, your behaviour management, your understanding of assessment and so on this year and rightly so! 

But what the Teachers’ Standards don’t adequately assess is our ability to spot and react to the tiny details that we pick up on when having a conversation. It can be a word, a look, a shiftiness, a lack of care and attention to detail, a short temper. All of these things tell us how to adapt our practice and we do it unconsciously a lot of the time.

Remote learning often prevents us from being able to do this well, or even at all.

So, one of the greatest challenges teachers are facing right now is not in their teaching. We have adapted our practices pretty well this year, refined our curriculum, changed our modes of assessment and they work. The challenge we face is in not knowing how our students are doing, from a Pastoral point of view, at least not without further investigation. In the normal classroom, we could have a quiet word in a students ear, or ask them to step into the corridor for a quick chat about something that’s clearly bothering them. This often nips the problem in the bud or at least lets the student know that their problem is on the way to being dealt with.

The remote lesson is often not a good place for similar investigations to take place. After all, would you want your teacher broadcasting to the class their questions about your personal life? Or even worse, in the private chat function? NO THANKS! Aside from it being a Safeguarding minefield, it just doesn’t work like a normal human interaction. This makes things a lot trickier for a teacher on their own to tackle. 

However, I’m not going to spend further time on that issue, as it needs a session of its own and someone with greater Pastoral expertise than mine to deal with it.

Finally, there are two different types of remote teaching or remote learning that take place.

  1. Synchronous, where the lessons are being taught “live”
  2. Asynchronous, where the lessons are pre-recorded, or tasks are set to be completed online, but not necessarily at a set time.

There are good reasons why a school or Multi Academy Trust would opt for one or the other of these modes of teaching. Most schools that I’m aware of employ a combination of both. 

Where I teach, we are expected to incorporate a live element to the lesson, but it doesn’t have to be for the full lesson. Maybe you would have a live introduction, before setting the students off on tasks for a period of time. You could then rejoin them later in the lesson to go through answers, or to set the next set of tasks.

Or, you might be “live” throughout the lesson, breaking the lesson down into lots of short chunks and asking students lots of questions, verbally, during the session, while being “there” for the whole time.

Or, the students themselves might even take on more of a presenting role during the lesson, with the teacher being the listener, rather than the speaker.

There are lots of different approaches to teaching remotely and I would highly recommend varying your style of lesson now and again, to prevent (a) boredom and (b) burnout. I’ll be going through a couple of ways to do this when we look at some of the types of tasks that are useful when I teach remotely myself.

If “live lessons” are so useful then why don’t we all do them all the time? (I hear Gavin Williamson ask).

Well, Gavin, the fact of the matter is that students might not be able to access the lesson remotely, in the same way that they can access the lesson in a normal school environment.

  1. They might not have their own device. They could be sharing with others in the family. This isn’t a deprivation issue though. I find this hard myself. I teach from home on a laptop. My wife also works from home on her laptop. I have two primary school-age children, each needing the use of a laptop (and supervision!) Oh, and I have a 4-year-old, rightfully wanting to be entertained for the whole day (often popping into my lessons to sing theme tunes from her favourite Netflix shows). Sometimes there just aren’t enough devices to go around! (And that’s without my laptop breaking last week!)
  2. They might not have broadband. Or data on their phone. Or even a phone. Maybe mam’s got a phone, but she’s at work. 
  3. There could be SEND issues affecting students’ ability to access the materials. Perhaps they aren’t differentiated or scaffolded as well as they would be in class. The TA that normally sits beside them isn’t there any more to talk them through the task piece by piece. 
  4. Parents might not have the knowledge, the time or the patience to help their children, even if they wanted to. Unfortunately for some children, their parents don’t even seem to want to. 
  5. Students are left to regulate their own learning. This is hard. They have to take almost complete ownership of it for the first time in their lives. Getting up on time, doing the work without anyone checking if they are doing it and so on. For a lot of students, they struggle with not being told what to do. When we looked at home students performed during and after the first lockdown where most students learnt from home, it helped some of those students become extremely independent. Most students stayed about the same in terms of their independence. But some of them regressed significantly, becoming much less confident in their abilities and required much more extensive support afterwards. And it isn’t always easy to spot which students will fall into each of those three categories. It doesn’t always affect the typical “groups” that you might normally monitor, like PP, SEND, vulnerable, etc. Some of the highest levels of stress were felt by the higher attainers, who were left devastated by the thought that the lockdown might prevent them from getting onto the high-flying career that they were planning for.

Ofsted have also published their own guidance on What’s working well in remote education. You can find it here.

Some of the myths that Ofsted have worked to dispel about remote education

Pedagogy: Is the “teaching” bit really any different?

Now that we’ve dealt with the difference in the nature of remote vs normal teaching, we need to get down to the pedagogy. This is where you have the most amount of control over the situation and can make a real difference and where you should focus the majority of your attention. 

There are some simple things you can do to make remote learning work better, but these are strategies you would also use in a normal classroom too. As always, some are more powerful than others, or are more necessary, depending on the school, the group, or the individuals in front of you, virtually or not.

  1. Structure

Firstly, make sure that you think about the structure of your lesson. In the normal classroom, you could talk to your students for much longer and have a much more relaxed interaction with the class. The remote classroom is different. Often it might seem as though you are lecturing into the void, with nobody speaking back to you, much like I’m doing now. This is ok, for short bursts, but students won’t hold attention for long. 

Pause often. Break the lesson into much shorter chunks than you normally would with a face-to-face lesson. Plan for pauses in the lesson, to give students a chance to digest the information, to discuss it, either using their actual voices or if not, then in the chat box. This is something that Doug Lemov points out in Teaching in the Online Classroom – Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. (I really do recommend this book as it gives some brilliant practical advice and draws from teachers’ real classroom experiences as well as from research studies.)

  1. Questioning

Use cold-calling, rather than waiting for the same students to volunteer their answers. A good method to use for your questioning technique is to ask the question, pause for a few seconds, then name the student who you would like the answer from. This has the twin-benefit of keeping everyone on their toes, while also giving students the opportunity to think of an answer before their name is called. 

If a student can’t answer, then don’t leave the interaction there. Try rephrasing the question, or giving them a little prompt. If they still can’t answer, then don’t continue to flog a dead horse, as my granny used to say. Instead, tell them that you will come back to them for their answer later on, or for an answer to another question. This lets them and everyone else know that there’s no opt-out. No getting off the hook. It makes it much less likely that students will attempt to dodge questions later on. They know they won’t get away with it.

Make sure you also ask a lot of questions. You might be familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, but in case you aren’t, he suggests that the teachers whose students performed better in the research studies, all other things considered, asked far more questions than their peers. Not only that, but those effective questioners asked a higher proportion of questions about the process of getting to the answer, as well as asking for the answer itself. 

This makes sense doesn’t it? After all, a student might guess the answer correctly, or be told the answer secretly by their best friend. But if you probe a little further, asking why that is the answer, any doubt will soon unravel and you will know whether the student truly knows the answer, or whether, like me when I was in Y10, they are just blagging it.

  1. Modelling

It’s usually not enough to ask students to create an extended answer, without showing them what one looks like first. The problem is that if you show them an image of a completed paragraph, perfectly crafted, using sophisticated terminology, detailed explanations and lucid examples, it will demotivate them. It’s the same as showing you a photo of Duc a l’Orange and then sending you into a kitchen to knock one up (thanks for that analogy go to Matt Pinket (@positivteacha), co-author of the incredible Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity In Schools).

Seeing the end result doesn’t actually show you how to get there. This is where modelling helps.

I like the “I do, we do, you do” approach. It gradually moves responsibility from the teacher to the students. In the remote classroom you can quite easily do this using an online whiteboard like Google’s Jamboard, or whiteboard.fi. Or if you just want a simpler way to do it, create an answer on a blank document or slide, while sharing your screen with the class. 

Make sure that as you construct your model answer, you narrate your thinking, so that students understand why you are making the decisions you are making, choosing one word over another, or structuring your paragraph in a certain way.

After that, do one together, getting students to suggest what to write, how to edit it as you go, suggesting improvements and revisions. Help them to understand that writing is a messy process and that they don’t need to create an amazing answer on their first attempt. This fear of writing it “wrong” is often paralysing. You can avoid this paralysis by removing the notion of “wrong writing” altogether.

Finally, get students to do their own, without any (or with much less) support. This is where remote learning differs slightly from the normal classroom. You would ordinarily be able to peer over someone’s shoulder to see what they were writing and to offer feedback. To make that possible in a remote setting I’ve found a useful way to emulate this. I use Google Classroom, Docs, Slides, etc but Microsoft has similar functions too. 

To do this, share editable documents with your students for them to type their answers into. When they type into it, you can see what they are typing in real-time. So, you can offer real-time advice, rather than waiting for them to submit the final piece, by which point any meaningful in-the-moment feedback will be redundant. You can therefore give timely comments to your students, referring to the models you worked on together previously and keeping that useful advice you narrated earlier in their minds for longer. 

  1. Collaborative learning

When I’ve spoken to my students about how they are finding remote learning, a lot of them miss the fact that they can’t see what their friends are producing. They like to know if they are keeping pace with the rest of the class. It can be very unnerving to not know whether you are doing enough, or too much, or just as expected. By being able to work with their peers, we can avoid this problem too. 

I’ve started using shared spreadsheets for some collaborative tasks. What I do is I share a spreadsheet with the whole class. They all have their own column, row or tab that they type their answers into, so that they don’t accidentally overwrite someone else’s work. But what is great is that they can see what each other is typing in real-time. 

For some, this gives them a nudge in the right direction if they aren’t pulling their own weight. For others, it can instil a sense of competitiveness, as they want to write something better or quicker or more original than their best friend. Some of them even use this as an opportunity to show off, but in a way that isn’t disruptive, as it doesn’t cause a scene.

This sort of task works best when used in synchronous learning, as the live element enhances the interactions between the students. It also works in asynchronous learning too though, as it gives “absent” students the ability to read the answers that were given in the live lesson, helping them to feel less like they have missed out. They can always add their answers later on.

  1. Assessment

Unless you think about it carefully and deliberately plan for it, assessment of remote learning can be very difficult. After all, it’s much easier to check for gaps in the learning, or gaps in work completed by taking a quick flick through an exercise book, or scanning the room as you’re doing an in-class test.

Fortunately, there are tools you can use to make the job of remote-assessment much simpler. Google and Microsoft both have similar functionality, but their apps are called different names and the labels on the buttons is often slightly different. For the purposes of this session, I’ll be talking about how I use Google’s platform, but rest assured you can do similar things using Microsoft too.

To capture student data on their knowledge and understanding of a topic, I create quizzes using Google Forms. The benefit of this is that once my Google Forms quizzes are created, I can:

  1. Re-use this resource with different classes
  2. Share it with as many students as I like at the click of a button
  3. Easily edit the questions
  4. Randomise the order of the questions to help prevent cheating
  5. Collect and analyse data automatically – it is self-marking
  6. Give feedback automatically, or at a set time in the future
  7. Easily test for and spot common errors and misconceptions.

The quiz questions themselves can be different styles: multiple choice, short answer, long answer, source-based (comment on the photo), etc. I prefer the multiple choice ones though. They are the easiest to set as a self-marking task and they have the huge advantage of being adaptable for different levels of difficulty. To increase the difficulty, I often increase the number of common misconceptions in the available answers, making it easier for the blagger to make a mistake and reveal themselves. Or I pose questions that only someone who had really learnt the material would be able to answer.

One top tip that will save you further time is that if you often use the same style of form, then you can set up or edit an existing template, rather than you having to edit your Google Form quiz from scratch each time. I only found this out yesterday and I’m far too excited about it. Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) is unofficially the Queen of Google Classroom. She posts new videos frequently on the different things you can do, so it’s worth scrolling through her feed to see what tips you can pick up.

Another way to easily create and collect an assessment is by giving out an “Assignment”. This is where students would be given a task, where you can specify a time limit. The way I do this is by scheduling the task to appear in my students’ Google Classroom timeline at a specific time of the day and for the deadline to be at a specified time later in the day. 

This is ideal for doing timed assessments during a lesson, as you can tell the students that, “At 9:30 your Medical Ethics timed assessment will appear on Google Classroom. You have 30 minutes to complete and hand it in, from the moment the assignment appears. Open the blank Google Doc attached and type your answers directly into it. Click “Hand It In” by 10:00.”

Any student who does not complete the assignment by 10:00 will be automatically logged as late, or that they haven’t handed it in at all if that is the case. This makes chasing students up much easier as you can just send a message on Google straight to those students, with further instructions or feedback.

This type of activity only really works with synchronous learning though, so depending on the nature of your lessons, or the circumstances of your students, it might not always be possible. That being said, I can see this being used much more widely than previously, even once the pandemic is over and all students are back in the school building full time.

6. Giving Feedback

Giving feedback on the work completed via Google Classroom is going to be a method that I’ll continue to use, once we are all back in school too. It’s so much easier than writing on paper the same sorts of comments over and over again. I’ve already been using a whole class feedback approach for most of the feedback that I give anyway for the past couple of years, creating a slide that all students can see on the board with common errors and misconceptions.

What I can do now though, is easily share that as a Google Doc and place it in my students’ timeline, so that when they receive their marks, they can also see most of the mistakes that they made. For any mistakes that aren’t covered by the whole class feedback, I would add a private comment on the student’s work. I’ve created a comment bank to help with this. All I need to do is to click where the comment would apply and type the # key to bring up all of the comments I could select from. 

You can also give an assessment back to the students to mark themselves, using a rubric. This is where you prepare a sheet with basic descriptors on it, that students then apply to their own answer. E.g. “⅗ if you have described the concept/object/event/teaching and given one example, but not given a second example in support”. You can then have greater confidence that the students are able to understand what makes their answer better and therefore what they need to do differently next time, or in a redraft of their answers. Dawn Cox (@missdcox), co-author of Making Every RE Lesson Count posted a Twitter thread about her use of rubrics, which you can find here.

The crucial thing to remember about giving feedback though is that it is not just something a teacher does to the student. The purpose is to ensure that the student is in a better position to answer next time. Don’t point out “more detail needed here”. This doesn’t really help the student. If they knew the detail you were on about, then they would probably have written about it. Instead, tell them, or show them what it is you want them to do next time, eg “Mention St Bernadette’s experience in Lourdes here”. This makes it much less likely that the student will flounder when attempting a redraft because they have a clearer understanding of what the answer should look like. 

On Google Forms Quizzes, you can easily give feedback, when designing the questions. At the end of the multiple choice answers, there is a section where you can include feedback on whichever answer was given. This is where you can type in the correct answer and the reason(s) why, so that students who answer incorrectly can see why they should have chosen a different answer. Remember, students need to understand not just the answers, but they must have the correct process to get to those answers. If they get the answer right by accident, then they don’t really understand and they will become unstuck on essay questions later on.

Behaviour management and relationships

I can only really speak from my own experience on this topic, but I think behaviour, in general, is better than it was. By better, I only mean what I can see on the surface. There aren’t students shouting out, or pinching each other’s stationery. They might still be avoiding work or being distracted. I just can’t easily see it as obviously. 

However, there are some classes whose behaviour stands out from others, in a good way, and I put it down to this: Means of Participation.

This is something I read in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion quite a while back, but I recently read an article by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) that mentioned it again and it brought it more sharply in my conscious understanding of how I speak to students in my own lessons.

When you set your instructions for an assignment, but then you aren’t there to keep an eye on what is going on, the students will often not do what you want them to do. This isn’t on purpose, though, they think they are doing what you’ve asked. The problem is that they haven’t really taken on board the “means of participation” or the rules of engagement if you like. Sometimes this is because I have forgotten to explain the parameters of the task, e.g. “You should write roughly 400 words” or “Use three Jewish teachings in your answer”.

Sometimes though, I give out the instructions in the wrong order. Can you spot the difference between these instructions?

  1. In the Google Doc attached, write 500 words explaining the Jewish kosher rules, where they originate and how some Jews might find them difficult to live by.
  1. Write about the Jewish kosher rules, where they originate and how some Jews might find them difficult to live by, in 500 words, using the Google Doc attached.

The nature of the task and the procedure or behaviour expectation are placed opposite ways around. I’ve found that if you place the behavioural expectation, the parameters or means of participation, at the front or at the start of your instructions, then the students are less likely to answer the question in the wrong way. It is even more important to do this when speaking to the class than when it is written down for them, as they can’t easily go back over the words you’ve said, especially if they are busy thinking of the next thing to do. 

The last thing I want to say about behaviour management is also a Pastoral thing too. You need to deliberately put effort into maintaining your relationships with students. In class this is easy and comes naturally as you can see and hear each other and have a bit of banter with them. In a remote lesson it’s much harder. If they are learning asynchronously it’s even more difficult. When can you speak to them?

Make sure that you invest some time going out of your way to praise, reward and guide them personally. Mention them by name in your lessons, in written feedback to the class, or even just in an email to them about their progress. Phone calls home or even just emails home to parents can be invaluable, as it reminds students that they haven’t been forgotten about, especially if they aren’t able to be present in lessons. 

Practical Tips to Reduce Workload

Encourage the use of cameras if that works in your setting. It’s easier to maintain relationships and to see if students are paying attention.

Almost always choose self-marking over teacher-marking where possible, when assessing to check knowledge.

Set deadlines for tasks, but understand that these need to be much more flexible than in normal times. Sometimes there is no need for a deadline. 

Use scheduling to batch your planning. You can set assignments and materials to be uploaded at specific points in the future. This means I can get all of my planning done in one day for the next month. This frees up my time to do other things later on, knowing that students will regularly have work set for them without me having to lift a finger.

Set expectations high for the completion of the work set, just as you would in your normal classroom. Students stay engaged in their education where they see it as challenging. When the challenge drops, they begin to value it less and this can be very demotivating. Once this drops, it’s hard to get it back. Keep them challenged!

Recommended Reading:

If you’ve come this far, then you really should buy the one book that has been a complete game-changer for me and countless other teachers, who began as remote-learning novices, but now have a huge arsenal of effective remote learning strategies to use in their lessons.

Teaching in the Online Classroom – Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal by Doug Lemov

In this book, Doug Lemov sets out a series of practical strategies that you can and really should use when teaching your classes remotely. He covers everything you would need and more, including lesson structure, feedback, SEND-specific considerations, explanation and delivery, questioning techniques and interaction/collaboration. I could go on, but I won’t.

Just buy the book. You can thank me later.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

P.S. Here is a copy of the slides that accompany this talk. Fair warning though, some of them might not make much sense without me talking through them!

What Should Trainee Teachers Look For When Observing Lessons?

Trainee Teacher Observing Lessons

[Updated 27 Oct 2020]

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.

Recommended Reading

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.

What other questions would you add to the list?

Leave a reply below, or send me a tweet!

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

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Asking Better Questions in RE

Asking Better Questions In RE

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:

  1. What do I want this assessment to tell me?
  2. 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
  • Enquiry Questions
  • Ultimate Questions
  • Open and Closed Questions (BOTH are extremely useful)
  • Moral dilemma questions
  • Interpretation questions
  • Comparison 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.

You can find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

Effective Classroom Questioning Strategies

Effective Classroom Questioning Strategies

Effective Classroom Questioning Strategies

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

Earlier in my career, I used to ask all of the wrong questions and when I asked the right ones, I asked them in the wrong order. The result was predictably bleak. My students still learned, but at times it took far longer than it should have done and in some cases, very little learning happened at all. This was down to me (most of the time).

I’m sure that most of us have felt guilty for letting our students down when we’ve taught a lesson that just didn’t do what we wanted it to do. But rather than spend time navel-gazing, it’s important that we instead address one of the most fundamental parts of our teaching. No, not the worksheets, or the PowerPoints, or even the homework. It’s our questioning. It’s easy to think that we’ve got our craft down to an art. But is questioning more of a science?

In my own experience, asking the right questions at the right time, to the right people, in the right way, is often what transforms a lesson from mediocre to truly excellent. Not only that, but there’s a way to do it well and with consistency, without your students tiring of formulaic lessons.

What’s the purpose of asking questions?

There are many reasons why we ask questions in class, whether it’s to check the level of understanding, stretch answers further, or to help develop confidence in our quieter students. A key component to effective questioning, though, is identifying why you are asking the question in the first place.

This is where “planning for questions” comes in. When I plan a topic, I always begin by deciding what my students need to know by the end and what skills I want them to be able to demonstrate. Only then can I decide which questions are more important than others. For example, in Religious Studies, I teach the nature of religious experience and how far it proves the existence of an afterlife. In order to teach this, I need students to be able to answer questions such as:

  • What defines a religious experience?
  • What are the different types of religious experience?
  • What common features do different types of religious experiences have?
  • How do religious experiences manifest themselves in different religions and cultures?
  • Why do people believe that religious experiences are convincing as evidence for an afterlife?
  • Why do people believe that religious experiences are not convincing as evidence for an afterlife?
  • How convincing is religious experience as an explanation for an afterlife?
  • How far does a belief in religious experiences impact the lives of believers?

Each question is designed to build upon the knowledge and skills that were learnt and developed in response to the previous question. By the end, I can be much more certain that students have an excellent understanding of the topic. Moreover, if a student was unable to answer a specific question, I’d easily be able to identify the reason for it, just by working through the previous questions, to see where they began to struggle.

What About Higher-Order vs Lower-Order Questions?

In the past, it was argued by some that higher-order questions, which require students to analyse and evaluate, were more important than lower-order questions, which simply sought to develop a basic understanding.

This is wrong.

Without first establishing a basic level of understanding of the main points, it’s pointless to ask the higher-order questions. After all, you can’t evaluate the persuasiveness of religious experience, without first knowing the key features, which you then need to critically analyse. All students need to master those basics, regardless of their prior attainment or levels of ability, before they move on to more complex analysis and evaluation. Knowledge comes first: you can’t apply skills in a vacuum.

That being said, higher-order questions can make a huge difference to students who would otherwise give simplistic and short answers. The question “Was the Treaty of Versailles significant in causing the Second World War?” elicits a much simpler response than “How significant was the Treaty of Versailles in causing the Second World War?” Students who would give a brief yes/no response to the first question would have to justify and evaluate their reasoning in answer to the second question.

What difference does effective questioning make?

Effective questioning, if viewed as part of a feedback dialogue between the teacher and the students, adds as much as the equivalent of eight months worth of teaching to students receiving it. This is according to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Toolkit and you can read more on it here. In my own experience as a classroom teacher, effective questioning makes a huge difference. Not only to the quality of teaching and learning, but it also cuts out activities that don’t contribute to the true purpose of the lesson or topic being learnt. Consequently, effective questioning reduces unnecessary workload – the Holy Grail in teaching today!

How should the questions be asked?

When asking questions, it’s important that you give your students time to think before answering. One way to do this is to give them some key questions in advance, either on the board or on a worksheet. Whether you do this or not, you should always wait for an answer, even if it means creating an uncomfortable silence for a few extra seconds. We can often be guilty of jumping in too soon if a student doesn’t answer. But this can be detrimental as it allows students to effectively opt-out of answering if they know you’ll do it for them. Instead, if you really have to, try rephrasing the question and ask something specific about part of the answer you want them to give. By narrowing your question in this way, a confused student might be able to give a more confident answer. From there, you can then ask a follow-up question which builds on what they have already said.

The follow-up question could also be asked to a different student, to keep the rest of the class on their toes. The popular strategy of “pose, pause, pounce, bounce” is a really simple and powerful questioning tool, which you and your students will find increasingly effective the more often you use it. First, pose the question to the class, then pause, allowing the class to think of their response. After this you “pounce” and ask a specific student for their answer. You can then “bounce” to another student to answer a follow-up question.

What about those students who still don’t answer?

Some students just don’t want to answer questions in front of their peers. More often than not it’s a confidence issue. It’s easy to just let these students live an easy life. However, for these students to thrive over the long-term, it’s vital that you keep asking them questions, rather than leaving them out. Ask them simple questions to get them used to speaking in front of others. The lower the stakes, the more they will feel they can answer without the crippling fear of getting it wrong in front of others. Over time (this could be weeks or even months), gradually ask them more challenging questions as their confidence grows.

How much time should you spend on questioning in your lessons?

As much time as possible!

I’ve found over the years, that students perform much better when they’ve spent a significant amount of time answering and debating the answers to questions during the lesson. Having a range of different answers helps them to develop their own understanding, particularly of complex topics and gives them models to base their own answers on. It’s also an incredible way to build engagement in the lesson, as students feel as though they have some ownership over the direction of the lesson and are able to “try out” their answers before committing them to paper in high-stakes assessments, where it really counts.

Effective classroom questioning strategies are the lifeblood of many of the most engaging and thought-provoking lessons I’ve taught and observed. If I focus on nothing else but this, my students will receive an enriching curriculum that stimulates and challenges them. Oh, and they’ll also be well-prepared for the rigour of their exams (after all, that’s quite important too).

Any questions?

I hope so!

Starting a Class Blog in 5 Minutes

Starting a Class Blog

Why is starting a class blog important?

Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.

For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.

Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.

When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?

Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?

Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…

  • The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
  • The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
  • The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
  • The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
  • The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.

Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.

Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.

Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’

  1. Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
  2. If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
  3. Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
  4. Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
  5. Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
  6. Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.

How do I set up my first class blog?

Blogger

Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use WordPress.com to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.

All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!

  1. Go to www.wordpress.com and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
  2. Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
  3. Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
  4. Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
  5.  Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
  6. Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
  7. You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
  8. You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.

Publishing your first post

Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.

Keep your first post simple.

I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.

To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.

Congratulations, you are now a blogger!

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.

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