In the current crisis in which schools are mostly closed, social distancing is the order of each long day, and the economic foundations of our prosperity seem to tremble in fear and anticipation, many of us are having to adapt to the new, perhaps not temporary, changes in the way we work. Teachers, certainly.
Like many teachers, I have had to quickly work out what I need to do, and what I need to know, to try to meet the immediate needs of my learners, and anticipate the potential needs of the learners I may have after the summer. There has been no shortage of advice and dialogue, and I have taken advantage of some of that (reported in this blog), as well as try to make sense of it from my own experience.
Here, I try to set out some of my developing understanding of remote teaching: teaching, because that is my focus. I will try to share observations on remote learning as I go.
One of the recurring themes in talking about meeting remote learners’ needs, and more generally as this crisis has unfolded, is the recognition that we all crave a sense of community. The weekly ritual of public clapping for the carers seems to be as much about belonging, with your neighbours, to a community as it is about appreciation of the NHS.
Students need their teachers to provide a way of sustaining the communities they belong to. One way of doing this is to offer regular contact with the teacher as a group, even if for a short while. Think of it as a kind of registration period, a checking in. This is not to suggest that you take your normal school timetable and simply deliver that using the technology.
The heartbeat of life’s experiences gives us a sense of security, of belonging. Smart online marketeers know that a regular newsletter keeps brand awareness going, so online educators keep in touch with their learners regularly, perhaps with a Monday message setting out the expectations of the week ahead. Any teacher will recognise this as signposting, a key element of basic pedagogy. What’s different in the current situation is the rhythm of it. Your community isn’t dead if it has a pulse.
In school, the environment is pretty much determined by the building and the bell. Take away the building and you no longer need the bell. The timetable is merely a resource management device, and in most schools a pretty lazy one at that, in which the children do the moving between periods. Now we have no building, no classrooms to time-share, we no longer need the tyranny of block-moving cohorts around in the merry-go-round of the school day. Now we have freedom to let children control and manage their own learning.
Lessons are still required. Teachers still need to teach. What we now have lost is the dogma of social constructivism as the foundation of our pedagogy: it has been relegated to nothing more or less than another tool at the disposal of the teacher, to be deployed when justified and necessary.
So what changes when moving to remote learning? Now we are forced to differentiate - to open up a dialogue between teacher and learner that may have been difficult to have in the hard stare of the whole class. Now, the teacher can organise and assemble her activities in a way that allows choice: the young person can decide for themselves when and if they are going to try the tasks available. Tasks designed to develop cognition, higher order thinking, understanding of topic or corpus, develop skills. These need to be made available in a way that is accessible, in all of the senses of that word, of course, but specifically, such that they can be accessed by the learner, when they can and want to, in a manner that they are able to.
You cannot have any influence of significance on the learning environment of your children now. That is beyond your scope and knowledge. What you have to do now is to make your activities, tasks, exercises and challenges available to the students such that if they can, when they can, they can do some learning.
Step away from the stage
The lecture is a very special way of teaching that needs a lot of things to work well. Very few teachers have ever done it well, so don’t try to do it in the virtual space. As teacher, you are likely to be the space owner, the moderator, the host. It would be an abuse of that privilege to hog all the time and screen space for yourself. Some of the best sessions I have recently seen online have taken a more conversational style, with at least two people talking on the topic, and those people were not the host.
If you find yourself having to run a session with a group of students, try to map your natural habits onto the virtual space: how often in your classroom do you set a question and then give the students 5 minutes to talk together on how to answer it? Do this as often in the virtual spaces too - most have a breakout feature that allow you to put the class into quickly assembled small groups. Give them space and they might be less reticent than you find them in the more “crowded” space.
Open on all channels
Given your inability to influence the way and the time in which learners access their education, the teacher needs to be available in as many safe ways as possible. Email, message boards, e-channels, a message in a bottle. All and any of these, at the choice of the young person, should be available to them at a time of their choosing, to use to communicate with you, subject to the approval of your policymakers. You might need to lobby these people to open up a channel - Twitter? Discord? Slack? Unheard of in a school a few years ago. Now, these are pedagogical and child protection tools.
In the virtual space, you are still a teacher. Basic pedagogies like wait time, signposting, shared intentions or road maps are still required. Use the tools you have as proxies for the tools you don’t: voting and polls instead of traffic lighting or thumbs; shared whiteboards; collaborative activities and project based working are useful but don’t keep the learners in your virtual cell longer than necessary. Use the back channels - chat spaces or messaging, WhatsApp, whatever, and if the class is too large, have someone manage that space so that voices are heard.
- Speak to your learners every week
- Open up the channels of communication, asynchronously
- Let the learners assemble together briefly every week
- Signpost what’s ahead every week
- Give each student an opportunity to speak every week
- Give the students control over access to activities
- Step away from the stage: don’t try to lecture
- Keep the basic pedagogies visible
This has been just a couple of hours of reflection on my developing understanding of taking my teaching online. There are many people with much more experience who are also sharing opportunities and ideas, such as Stephen Heppell, and my colleagues in the Centre for Research into Digital Education. Share your own thoughts and experiences, so we can all do this well.