Over the last couple of days Lord Andrew Adonis, Labour peer in the House of Lords and former Schools Minister under Tony Blair, has been raising eyebrows with a series of tweets on how he believes schools should be setting work during the lockdown. Yesterday he announced he was talking to former head of Ofsted, Mike Wiltshaw, about the need for schools to provide a “full online education during the lockdown”.
Unfortunately, Lord Adonis seems a little unwilling to answer questions about what exactly he means by a “full online education” but we can see from his previous tweets that this seems to indicate teaching live lessons online.
He is so sure that this is the right approach for schools that he has written to the current Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, asking her to intervene in the monitoring of schools and identify “good &poor practice”.
These exchanges raise a whole host of questions. For now, we will leave aside the accusations of a conflict of interests and we will play the ball rather than the man. So lets focus on:
- Are live online lessons practical?
- Are live online lessons effective?
Are live online lessons practical?
The short answer, for many, is “no”. We can see this from two perspectives. The teacher and the pupil.
For teachers to run live lessons, for up to 5 hours a day, they need the right computer set up. A laptop or, given the amount of time they would be spent sat there, ideally a desktop computer. They will need a quiet room in which to work, webcam & microphone. Excellent broadband. They would also need training in how to teach effectively online (see below).
The reality is that many teachers lack this technology at home and lack the space in which to work in this way. Many teachers, especially younger teachers working in over-priced cities, live in shared accommodation and would be rightly worried about live streaming from their bedrooms. Teacher pay is low, and was frozen for a decade, and it is hardly surprising that what technology we have access too many be old, cheap and prone to glitches. Add to this all the teachers who are juggling working from home with childcare and we can see how unlikely it is that they will be able to spend 5 hours locked away in a study broadcasting lessons.
Similar issues face our pupils. Many do not have their own device for lessons to be streamed to. They may have a phone, but this is hardly ideal for watching and engaging in a lesson (see below), and the data on this phone is likely to be capped. Home wifi may also be capped or non-existent. If there is a laptop at home then this may be shared by siblings and parents also working from home. The same will go for any quiet space that might be available in the house. Like teachers, some of our pupils will also have been given childcare responsibilities to enable their parents to work.
For both teachers and pupils it becomes very impractical to insist that lessons should be streamed live. The alternative, prepared materials (worksheets, video clips, power points with video narration, textbook tasks) have the advantage that they can be set at any time and completed at any time. Everyone can work around shared technology. They also need less data to download and access than streaming will.
So, no, live online lessons are not practical for many teachers and pupils.
Are live online lessons effective?
Lets imagine though that you teach in some sort of ideal world where all those practicalities are addressed. Does that mean we should embrace live online lessons? Still no. The Education Endowment Foundation report shows that
The report finds that the quality of remote teaching is more important than how lessons are delivered. For example, teachers might explain a new idea live or in a pre-recorded video. But what matters most is whether the explanation builds clearly on pupils’ prior learningRemote Schooling (EEF, 2020)
The problem we seem to find with Adonis is the same issue that we often find when people with very limited experience of teaching wade into debates over pedagogy. What seems to be intuitive may not actually be true.
It feels intuitive that we would want to best replicate the experience of being in a classroom and that live lessons online would be the closest to this. The problem is, it doesn’t take into account all the ways that online lessons will differ from those in the classroom.
When pupils turn up to my classroom I can greet them at the door, check how they are, address any urgent issues and get them settled to their work. As I explain things, I use my whole body (really, it is a sight to behold). I modify my speech patterns based on reaction from the class. I dart from pupil to whiteboard. When I am talking to them I am also constantly scanning the room, looking for those pupils who appear to not be concentrating, asking questions to those whose body language seems to suggest confusion, identifying those pupils who I think have something to add and who want to contribute. Whilst pupils are working I can constantly circulate the room and look for misconceptions or pupils who are not engaged in their work. I can bring the class back together and respond to what I have seen.
I could keep going here – the art of the teacher in the classroom is not even close to being replicated in an online lesson streamed live to a pupil’s home. That is because we are trained to teach in a classroom, we have added years of experience of teaching in a classroom. Very few of us have been trained to teach live via online platforms. There was no time.
And all this is before we consider things from their end. Watching me on a screen, especially all those who will be trying to do so on a phone (see above) will leave them beset with other distractions in their environment. The teacher’s presence fills a room in a way a phone screen will not.
The pedagogy of the classroom doesn’t translate to the screen in the way that those from outside the profession assumes it does. That is why we have specialists (teachers) who make decisions about the best way to teach and we don’t leave it to ex-school ministers, over a decade out of the job, to determine what we should be doing.
So what should we be doing?
Where does this leave us? What should teachers and schools be doing during an unprecedented global pandemic? The only answer can be “the best they can”. It could be that for you, and your setting, live online lessons work really well. Perhaps you have overcome the practical problems and have developed a pedagogy that overcomes the problems of not being in the room. That is great! Please, as a teacher, write about what you are doing so we can all have a think about whether this would apply to us. For most of us though I suspect the “best they can” will be prepared materials that pupils can access through a range of devices at a time that suits them. This can be combined with answering questions via email or VLE platforms, again, at a time that suits everyone, and with work uploaded and shared via a range of different methods and feedback provided in a range of different ways.
It isn’t for me to say what the “best they can” looks like. I don’t know the struggles besetting other schools and other settings. It sure as hell isn’t Andrew Adonis’ place to pontificate on what the “best they can” is. Lets instead start with the assumption that every school is doing the best they can because schools are staffed with teachers and leaders who always do the best they can. If you think that they could be doing something better quickly run your assumption past the fact they they had 48 hours to put an entirely new way of teaching and learning in place and have delivered this all whilst learning on the job and juggling all the other competing demands on schools.
What teachers really don’t need at the moment is a high-profile individual like Adonis casting aspersions on what teachers are doing. We need our whole community to come together in support and work together on helping our young people to get through this emergency in the best way possible. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, then please shut up.
My latest book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is available from Crown House Publishing with 30% off and free P&P whilst schools are closed to the children of non-keyworkers. Please use code CPD30 at checkout.