Remote Learning: Impossible Desires

In Teach Like Nobody’s Watching I argued that the process of teaching something, when you strip it back, is remarkably simple. If you watch anyone from children to experienced professionals teach you see the same things: recap of what you think they already know, give them some new information or instruction, get them to try it, let them know how they got on. That is teaching in a nutshell. 

However, doing these four things really well is complex. There are many ways of recapping what you think people already know and different reasons for choosing each method depending on what you want to achieve. The same goes for giving people feedback. Managing this for one person doing a specific task is quite simple, but managing it for several classes a day becomes complex. This is why we need trained professionals teaching children. We understand the complexity; at least we do in usual times. These are not usual times. 

I also think that teaching has become over complicated, primarily as we try to meet the competing demands of outside observers. We have to adapt what we think will work best to please parents, school leaders, distant MAT bosses and school inspectors. We have seen this over complication recently with the need to develop things for remote learning. Already, in the first few days we can see a gulf opening up in our profession between teachers who have been allowed to get on and do what they think works best for them and their classes and those who are trying to meet stringent demands from their schools to teach remotely in a certain way.

Adding to this over complication is that few of us are trained or experienced in teaching remotely. All that understanding of the complexities of managing learning in a classroom counts for little when attempting to teach via a video link.

Over complication often happens because we want to make desirable things happen, even when they are impossible. At the moment, it is desirable to keep children learning much as they would at school. To provide some kind of personalized instruction from their teachers, opportunities to ask questions and have them answered immediately and to get detailed feedback on their work. For me, a lot of this desire comes from a real concern about the disadvantage gap that will widen if we just leave children and parents to get on without us in this time. Some families will thrive like this. They will make use of various resources to keep their children engaged and learning. They will have the level of education themselves to do this and the confidence necessary to ask for help (either from professionals or peers) if they need it. Other families won’t. It is therefore desirable to keep teaching remotely so that everyone continues to learn as they would in school. It would be lovely if that could happen. But it can’t.

Despite what Harris CEO Dan Moynihan might think, teachers are not currently on “down time”. Many teachers are juggling trying to work with trying to teach and look after their own children. Many are still going into schools to help look after the children of key-workers.. We have technology glitches, children without the internet, parents who are unable, or unwilling, to help their children with their work and children who have decided they aren’t going to work and see that there are few immediate consequences for these decisions. Trying to make the desirable happen in these circumstances is only going to lead to burn-out at a remarkably quick rate. 

When the idea of remote learning was raised my first instinct was to think about how I could use things like videos, visualisers and annotated powerpoints to still ‘teach’ my classes. That madness lasted about an hour. Instead, I quickly decided to return to the basic simple principles of teaching that I used in Teach Like Nobody’s Watching and just look to adapt them so that they can happen without me being present. This has meant that setting work has been a very quick process, as has checking work that pupils have done and making sure that they get some kind of feedback. 

Step one – recap

Each lesson starts with a quick recap of what they already know about the topic. Sometimes this will be a few bullet points (“you should already know that…”) and sometimes this involves a quick quiz. 5 questions on one slide with the answers on the next so they can check if they were right. 

Step two – input

They aren’t going to be able to take in too much new information without expert guidance on hand. I try to include a couple of video clips sourced from YouTube along with textbook pages and materials we already have on the system. They read a small amount of information and then…

Step three – application

They use what they have just read to answer some questions. That’s it. No complex tasks. Just some questions to make them think. I give them some sentence starters or quick model answers to help them if they need it. 

Step four – feedback

I moved away from written comments on classwork a long time ago but largely replaced it with live feedback given as pupils were working. That can’t happen now. What I can do is give material for pupils to check their own work (those model answers or some success criteria). Pupils upload their work to our VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) and I read through it. I can send back a very quick comment if there is some glaring problem. Otherwise, I use what I have seen to inform the recap phase of the next lesson.

This is all very far from perfect, but perfect isn’t achievable. The best I can hope for is to keep my pupils ticking over and try to prevent them forgetting too much of what they had learnt. I want to keep them thinking about geography and I want everyone, whatever their situation at home, to have the best possible chance of being able to join in.

We are in uncharted waters at the moment. We are going to have to perform a delicate balancing act between what we want to achieve and what is actually possible. If we can do this, we might just have a remote chance of pulling this off.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: The essential guide to effective and efficient teaching is available now.

One thought on “Remote Learning: Impossible Desires

  1. Pingback: Useful links | Rhondda's Reflections - wandering around the Web

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