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.

[Article contains affiliate links]

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!

New Year, New You?

New Year, New You

Forget setting goals. Cultivate good habits instead.

This article was first published in HWRK Magazine in December 2020 and contains affiliate links.

I’m a huge fan of New Year. Not because of the celebrations (as if we’ll be doing much of that this year), but because they give us an opportunity to sit back and take stock. I like to use this time to think about how I can improve my teaching, so that the following year I can look back and see how I’ve developed. The key to this though seems counterintuitive.

I don’t set goals.

For me, goals are an unwelcome pressure and distraction. Worst case scenario, I don’t meet them and I feel like a failure. Best case scenario, I achieve them, feel great for a split second and then I worry about the next goal, as if the previous one doesn’t matter anymore.

For me, goals are a lose-lose situation and nobody needs that in their life.

So, instead of setting goals, I cultivate habits. In doing so, I don’t need to worry about hitting a certain target, or even measuring anything at all. It’s easy(ish). Last year I decided I would use more retrieval tasks during my lessons, after reading Kate Jones’ fantastic book, Retrieval Practice. I didn’t decide to put a retrieval task in every one of my lessons, or use it in a particular way, or to standardise the ways I would use them. I just decided to do it more often. No pressure, no worries.

It worked. Not only that, but I naturally began to do it more often as time went on. It became part of how I operated as a teacher, as I slowly found my own way of doing it. Now, I can look back on how my teaching has developed and I can confidently say that it’s in a much better place now than it was a year ago.

As far as departmental curriculum planning goes, there are ways you can encourage similar habits in your colleagues. Each teacher in your department could work on a particular strategy, tactic, use of resource, or whatever. Keep it simple though. For example, you could agree to try out some sort of questioning technique or behaviour management method more often. Or, you could ask students to complete a particular type of task more often, that appears to have made a positive impact in the past.

Your new habit doesn’t have to be tracked and it certainly doesn’t have to be observed or even checked at all by anyone else. The whole point is that by trying out a new habit, the teacher is free to take their time with it and do it in their own way and at their own pace. In doing so, any “data” (and I use this term VERY loosely) gained will be useful.

If you want, then any feedback on your and your colleagues’ new habits can then be discussed in a much more open and less formal setting than your typical Appraisal meeting, where there might be incentives to give a more “polished” version of reality than you otherwise would do. Avoiding untruthful versions of how it went can then lead to much more helpful conversations about how to implement any positives discovered across the whole department. You might also come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, which brings me to my next point.

One thing to bear in mind, is the impact that any additional habit has on your existing ones. Every time I hear about teachers being asked to do extra things in their lessons, without dropping other things they’re already doing, I despair. You only have a finite amount of time and energy. We can’t afford to waste either one of them.

So, to help make space for any new habits, I’d like to offer you one piece of advice. You can take it or leave it, but for the last couple of years, it’s worked brilliantly for me.

Conduct a brief past year review. It’s simple and doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.

Think back over the types of activities, resources, procedures, etc that you have worked with over the past year and ask yourself these five questions:

1. Which ones caused you the most stress?

2. Which ones didn’t seem like they were worth the effort?

3. Which ones did students do badly?

4. Which ones did you do badly?

5. Which ones could easily be replaced, improved or completely dropped?

If you can think of anything you’ve done in the past year that answers at least two of these questions then think about dropping it. If you can think of anything that fits three or more, then (if you can) you should probably drop it now.

Pro Tip: Getting your whole department to conduct the past year review might be a useful exercise to make your departmental operating procedures run a little smoother. But approach this with caution and try not to take it too personally if it’s your own pet project that everyone else wants to scrap. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. Be ok with that.

So remember: Your time is precious. You have better things to do than to waste your time on things that cause more problems than they solve. You should do those instead. Setting goals might motivate some people, but we teachers have plenty of those in our lives already. Let’s just cultivate some better habits. They matter more.

Are Your Students Remotely Learning?

Remote Learning

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:

  1. The health, wellbeing and education of our students.
  2. 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?”

So…

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.

Andy

Returning To School After Covid-19: What’s The Plan?

Filling in the Gaps

Do you know where to begin, when schools return?

We’re living through unusual times. Students, parents and teachers alike are trying to navigate the brave new world of education, while at the same time dealing with illness, isolation and new working arrangements. Not only that, the mental toll that this all takes is immeasurable.

But one day, it will end. So what then? Do we just go back to normal? I highly doubt it. As the days go by, a new “normal” seems to be emerging across the country and beyond. Companies who once ran large offices have successfully moved almost entirely online. Household shopping habits, panic-buying aside, have adapted with more and more people opting for online delivery. And schools have begun, finally, to adopt more remote-learning practices, emulating to varying levels those of other countries such as South Korea, China and the US, although in fairness this is much more tailored to university-based rather than school-based courses. Will it become the new normal for schools? Who knows. I suspect we will see more of it when we return to school. Watch this space.

It’s entirely possible, likely even, that schools won’t formally return until September 2020. When that happens, teachers will have a battle on their hands. Students will not all have had equal access to home-learning. Many students have their own laptops, of course. But some have very little in the way of IT facilities in their household beyond, perhaps, a smartphone.

Similarly, some families will have been proactive in pushing their children to make progress through the work set by their teachers. Obviously this will not be the case for all families, with some families being crippled by their health, education, or socio-economic conditions, regardless of their willingness to engage with schoolwork. For some (generally privileged) families, this will be the first time they have experienced anything like hardship. As Emily Maitlis recently mentioned on Newsnight, Covid-19 is not the “great leveller” that some politicians would have you believe. It has hit the least privileged the hardest. However, there are outliers, both positive and negative and we need to be particularly mindful of that, when planning our next steps.

There will be knowledge gaps. Chasms in some cases. So, when students return to school, teachers will need to spend far more time ensuring that missed milestones are hit, essential knowledge is covered and that each of your students can access what they need.

We’ve always done this, of course, but this challenge will be far greater, as entire topics may have to be retaught to groups within your classes. Below is something I will be doing to help diagnose the weak points that each of my students may have, on their return. It’s a work-in-progress and I’d love feedback on how you might improve the model, so please leave a comment on this article or tweet me @guruteaching and let me know what you think.

The 4-Step Plan for September

Step 1 – Assess Students’ Confidence

Using a Google Form (or something similar), I will create a list of topics that would normally have been covered and ask students to rate their confidence on each one. I’ll just be using a scale of 1-4:

  1. “I expect to perform extremely well on this area when assessed”
  2. “I expect to perform quite well on this area when assessed”
  3. “I’m not sure how well I will perform on this area when assessed”
  4. “I expect to perform poorly on this area when assessed”

I’ll then send this out to students, using Google Classroom. If you don’t use Google Classroom, you could just share the link via email, Class Charts, Class Dojo, or whatever platform you normally use.

N.B. It might be useful to send this out to students in July and then again in September, just to see how the summer break has affected students. This might be a bit of an ask though!

Once I have the responses, I can begin to prioritise which topics might require more teacher-input than others. Now I should point out that just because my students are “confident” in a topic, it doesn’t mean that they will definitely perform well when assessed. The two do tend to be loosely linked though, and in the absence of robust assessment data, I find that “confidence” is a useful starting point.

Step 2 – Teach the Essentials

We need to make sure that students cover the breadth and depth of their courses that they normally would. This is important for fulfilling National Curriculum and exam board commitments, but also because students have an entitlement to this information irrespective of our statutory duties. The problem we will face in September is that we will have an increased volume of content to cover in a short space of time. I’m working at the moment on identifying the most useful* pieces of each topic, such that if not everything can be covered adequately, at least students will still have a good chance of attaining well in their GCSE, A Level, or end of year examinations.

*By most useful, I mean pieces of knowledge that may be useful in a number of different assessment topics, rather than just in one topic. This could include specific principles, quotes, scholars, or broad themes and will differ depending on the course or subject.

Step 3 – Assess and Analyse

Assessments need to be particularly thorough. Standard mock papers won’t suffice, as they cover only a small proportion of what should have been learnt. Instead, I’ll be giving my students a series of short-answer questions to determine what they know and what they don’t, covering the breadth of the whole course. The questions won’t necessarily need to be in the style of the exam that students are preparing for, it might depend on what I (or you) want to draw from the students.

Some questions might even be multiple-choice Google Form quizzes that I can use to quickly ascertain where strengths and weaknesses lie, with next to no workload generated on the marking end. I can also keep these quizzes to be used by future cohorts.

Managing workload is going to be an even greater challenge than usual in the upcoming autumn term. September to December is always busy, but with the potential for Covid-19 to re-emerge after the summer (according to some experts), we need to be especially mindful of looking after ourselves and our colleagues as much as possible.

Step 4 – Personalisation and Filling in the Gaps

Ideally, the results from the assessment will be uniform across the class, with my students performing similarly well on some topics and similarly less well on others. But it’s more likely that students’ results will be less homogenous than usual. I will be ensuring that students keep a record in the front of their exercise books of their performance in different topics. This will help them to see at-a-glance how well they are performing. It will also, hopefully, provide parents and carers with some form of feedback on their child’s progress in between termly reports and progress evenings.

To personalise the learning, I will be compiling a list of go-to resources, with accompanying self-marked (Google Form) quizzes, so that students can independently fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Students will be asked to continue to update their assessment tracking sheets, to reflect the progress they make on their weaker areas. I expect that monitoring this personalisation system is going to be quite time-consuming at first, but as gaps are filled and students’ strengths and weaknesses become more uniform, the effort required should (hopefully) reduce.

Final Thoughts

My plan for September (or earlier) isn’t set in stone and may have to be adapted depending on the situation we find ourselves in when we return to school. Not only that, but we will also have a myriad of other non-academic issues to address, which in many ways are far more important. Relatively few of us will get through the next few months unscathed, but if we keep supporting each other with ideas and by sharing resources, we will all edge closer to where we need to be, wherever that is.

Stay safe.

Andy

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

The Performance Related Pay Timebomb

Guest Post written by Bruce Grieg

performance related pay

Performance related pay policies are starting to unravel…

Performance related pay progression for school teachers has been around since 2014. Over the next year or so I think we are going to see this policy quietly unravel.

Why?

Lots of teachers who were starting off at the bottom of the main pay scale back in 2014 will likely have now received their final performance related pay increase. All the problems with performance related pay will now start bubbling up to the surface.

What problems? Surely performance related pay is a good thing? If people do a good job, they should be paid more, right?

That’s the superficial and trite justification for performance related pay rolled out by the DfE at the time of its introduction.

The DfE and the School Teachers Pay Review Board trotted out lots of “evidence” supporting the introduction of performance related pay. But the evidence they relied on fell broadly into two categories. Some of it demonstrated that performance related pay didn’t work at all; or wasn’t really evidence at all, but just anecdotes about how the private sector used performance related pay (STRB 2012, Chapter 2).

What was glaringly missing from this evidence, for anyone (like me) with a cursory knowledge of the field, was the academic research into performance related pay.

There is a large body of research looking at what happens when you pay people more if they do a good job. And that research tends to show that the more money at stake, the worse people perform.

For example, Professor Daniel Ariely at MIT has carried out many experiments which all fall into some variation on this theme: subjects are asked to perform a challenging intellectual task and are paid money if they perform that task well. A control group does the same task, but is just paid for their time regardless of how well they perform.

In many different variations of these experiments, people tend to do worse if their reward depends on how well they perform. Even in rural India, where the amount of money on offer for top performance was equivalent to six months of household expenditure, people did better if they were just paid a fixed amount for their time. You’d think that if you offered someone a small fortune for completing some demanding cognitive task to a certain standard, they would try really hard to earn that money. But no: if you just pay people a fixed amount to do the tasks, they do it better than those who are offered a huge reward for doing it well.

(Source: http://www.bos.frb.org/economic/wp/wp2005/wp0511.pdf)

So what’s the explanation for the performance-related pay results?

One explanation is that having a lot of money at stake creates too much stress on the participant and they just perform less well. If they can relax knowing the money is guaranteed, even if there is less on offer than the “performance pay” group is getting, they do a better job of the task.

Does this sound familiar? Teachers under stress? Linking pay to performance surely increases teacher stress, even for the best teachers. And that might well make them perform less well in the classroom.

A more nuanced explanation is that once you make money the prime incentive, you lose the other incentives which were there before. The greatest reward for completing challenging work is really the intrinsic satisfaction it creates. Whether that’s solving a scientific conundrum or getting all of your bottom set in maths to pass their GCSE. But once you start introducing a financial reward for doing a better job, you lose the intrinsic reward.

I think that’s what we are likely to see soon. There is a cohort of teachers out there who have had five years steadily working up the main pay scale. Each year they’ll have been told that they have earned extra money because they have been doing a great job. Next year they’ll be again told they’ve done a great job. But they won’t be paid any more for it.

This probably won’t lead to newspaper headlines and strikes and resignations. It is very hard to complain loudly about people supposedly being paid more for doing a better job. But I think school leaders will start to see quiet discontent seeping into staff rooms in schools around the country, as this performance related pay policy slowly unravels.

Author Bio:

Bruce Greig is an entrepreneur and school governor. He served as CoG through two Ofsted inspections and four headteachers. He set up SchoolStaffSurveys.com after discovering how enlightening an anonymous staff survey can be and decided to make it easy for every school to run them. He has previously built businesses in property maintenance and technology sectors.

Website: www.schoolstaffsurveys.com

Twitter: @schoolstaffsurv


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