This article was first published in May 2021 in Sec Ed. You can find the link to the original article here.
Since lockdown ended and we all returned to our classrooms, I have noticed that things are different. I did not expect them to remain completely the same, but what I have been surprised by is just how much my teaching has changed since March 2020.
During lockdown, I could not wait to leave it all behind and I counted the days until I could return to my physical classroom. I was particularly tired of looking at rows of initials instead of faces. But now I am back, I realise something: the technology that I have struggled with and the new strategies I have had to adopt will be sorely missed if we abandon them now. As much as I can’t stand the phrase…
…we’re in a ‘new normal’
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to get all misty-eyed about tech-filled 21st-century schools being some utopian wonderland. Fundamentally, I don’t think teaching and learning will change that much, no matter how much tech we throw at it.
What I do believe, however, is that we have crossed the Rubicon. We are not experts in it yet, but enough of us are now good enough at using certain technology for us to embed features of it into our permanent everyday practice.
The tech and strategies that will stand the test of time will be those that help to improve access and attainment for students, and which reduce workload for teachers.
With that said, here are a few of the remote learning strategies (and the tech that underpins them) that I believe are here to stay:
- Self-marking quizzes.
- Marking using comment banks.
- Setting and collecting all classwork/homework assignments online.
- Collaborative working, using shared docs.
- The importance of making routines explicit.
Marking work is a repetitive and laborious exercise. Thankfully, it is something that does not necessarily have to be done by a human, at least, not in the traditional sense.
By designing multiple-choice quizzes, using software such as Google Forms, you can reclaim your time. Google Forms allows you to assign the requisite number of marks for each answer. But you can go much further than that, by setting out what feedback the student will receive when they answer correctly or incorrectly.
One of the most useful feedback tactics I have used is directing students to online videos of worked examples, or websites containing explanations of complex concepts. This takes the pressure off teachers to provide those same details themselves, especially if it relates to a common error.
A set of quizzes that might once have taken me two hours to mark, or which might have taken 20 minutes of my lesson when peer-assessed, now takes less than a minute, including the time it takes to record the results, as you can instantly import them into your spreadsheet.
We have found a way to streamline the feedback mechanism for longer and more complex answers. Platforms such as Google Classroom allow for the creation of comment banks. Teachers can use these by dragging and dropping the appropriate comment onto the required section of the page. By doing this, you avoid having to rewrite the same sort of comments over and over again when they are common to many pieces of work.
The positive impact on your time can be amplified further if you use comments that are particular to a specific exam skill that you give feedback on.
The comment bank can work for a broad range of questions of a particular style, rather than for only one specific question. For example, in a GCSE “describe” question, you can use the exam board descriptors as your comments, making them usable for all future “describe” questions, thereby cutting future workload beyond this one task you are marking.
In reality, you might only need to spend 30 minutes to create four brief comment banks for an entire GCSE course, if there are only four types of question on the exam. That is a lot of time saved, both in the short and long term.
Setting and collecting online work
Setting work for your class is usually straightforward. But having learning materials ready and available for students who are ill, isolating, or elsewhere has always been a pain point for teachers.
Students might not pick up the worksheet, or you might forget to send that email. By setting the work online, everyone can access it in both our classroom and at home.
However, what makes this even more valuable as a strategy, is that it prevents students from falling behind when they inevitably lose bits of their work during the year, reducing the potential for gaps in their folders and (by extension) their knowledge. Just direct your students to the section on Google Classroom, for example, and they will have everything they need.
I have always found it difficult in my own lessons and for homework to get students to collaborate effectively on tasks. Even with the best will in the world, it can become a less effective use of time compared to working independently, especially if those collaborating are in different locations.
With the use of online software, students can both work on the same document at the same time, allowing one another to see what their peers are producing in real time.
This has been invaluable during lockdown, as one of the major drawbacks for students has been the anxiety produced by not knowing whether or not they are keeping pace with their peers. Collaboration using a Google Doc, for example, alongside a live video or text chat function, where students can discuss the work, allows them to create something as if they were side-by-side in the same room. They can “see” each other typing, allowing for a better connection between students working together.
Our routines have changed. We have had to adopt new phrases, employ new transitions between tasks and find new ways of moderating the behaviour of our students. Doing these new things during lockdown, after being comfortable with my own long-established in-person routines, was a bit of a shock to my system.
Since coming back to the physical classroom, I’ve become much more explicit in my instructions to students. Prior to lockdown, I relied much more on my “personality”, for want of a better word, to monitor and influence student behaviour.
I have rephrased my behaviour instructions in a very specific way. This is because during remote learning, I could not be a physical presence in the room and could not detect as easily when students were struggling, or were off-task, so I had to adapt my instructions to remove unnecessary barriers to their understanding of the task, such as the behavioural cues.
Previously I could intervene in an ad hoc way. But in the remote lesson I could not, so I had to set up students better in the first place.
My instructions in the physical class now begin with a behavioural cue, e.g. “While discussing…”, “On your own…”, “Using your sheet…”, etc. This means that students are less likely to begin doing something in the wrong way, so that less intervention is required from me to correct their course of action.
This might seem obvious, but the effectiveness of the instruction often stems from where the behavioural cue occurs in the instruction. If you place it at the beginning, students absorb it much more than if it is placed at the end, when they are too busy still thinking about what you said at the start.
It has been a memorable year in education (so far) and not always for the best reasons. But it is one that has truly revolutionised how we think about our teaching. Now we are all back in the physical classroom, it is time to capitalise on what we have learnt and build upon it for the future.