6 Principles for Remote Learning

Have realistic expectations

For many reasons, teaching remotely, however well we do it,  is not comparable like-for-like with face to face teaching. We are simply in the business of making the best of a bad situation!

Listening to colleagues, there is no shortage of anecdotal suggestions that planning and preparing for online learning takes longer.  When we consider that most teachers are novices when it comes to this way of working – through a new medium and new pedagogies – this is not surprising. Novices in all areas of expertise need more time to reach peak performance. This is the reality, and something that we should consider  when strategising for remote learning.

The holy grail is curriculum continuity. There is an urgency to ensure that pupils working at home are not denied access to a full and rich curriculum.  While this certainly is desirable – what teacher doesn’t want this? –  it’s not necessarily achievable or realistic. This is where there is real danger of us trying to push an elephant up the stairs – when we build our expectations around idealistic intentions rather than around reality.

When focusing on your curriculum – what is to be taught – the best advice is do less, well. Slow down, strip back and carefully sequence your content to meet the needs of your context. More core, less hinterland.

Remember that it is highly likely to take many pupils longer to access, to process and to respond to digital task-setting, in comparison to the routines established, often over time, in a classroom setting.

The quality of pupils’ work is likely to be lower as they battle to mitigate a range of factors associated with working from home and creating digital output. In her brilliant book Teachers v Tech, Daisy Christodoulou notes that it is necessary for us all to have an awareness of the capacity of distractions that modern technology provides.

Keep it simple, and view it as a pupil

I think that it is incredibly important to simplify the lessons that we deliver to as few component parts as possible. So far, I’ve used: Google Meet, Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Forms, Jamboard, Kahoot; I’ve shared PDFs, I’ve shared videos, I’ve asked pupils to complete tasks on pen and paper away from the screen – sometimes several of these at once! I did it for the right reasons, and everything worked a little bit,  but if you are familiar with John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory and the limitations of the working memory, you’ll know where I was going wrong. I wonder how many students are sat in front of their screens thinking about where to find which resource and how to use it, rather than thinking about what we want them to be thinking about, what we want them to be learning.

The irony is this: Sat at my desk, I’ve got three screens running. I’m jumping between Chrome tabs, I’ve got the Classroom stream running on my iPhone. I’ve got a Jamboard running. I’ve got my notepad and pen: I’m like Rainman, flicking playing cards through the air, and the poor kids are home on a 7-inch Chromebook and they’re entirely lost and the learning just doesn’t happen.

So keep it simple. Consider cognitive load, and view your lessons through the lens of the pupil.

Be flexible

Working at home is not the same as working at school. Homes are not schools. That institutional routine of being in school, that shared and common understanding of purpose, of why we are here and what it means and what is expected of you in school, is missing for our students right now. Now, like us, they are trying to adapt to new systems and new ways of working. But in most cases, they simply do not have the knowledge needed to establish the effective and disciplined routines that they would ordinarily experience in school. They’ve got siblings running around, or they’re sharing a device, or they are reportable to a household routine that is incompatible with a school timetable. There is a growing body of evidence documenting the very real effects of screen fatigue, which I’m sure we’ve all seen and experienced first hand. The reality is that it’s sometimes just not feasible for pupils to work in the same ways that they are used to. 

It really calls for us to be flexible. Flexible with attendance, with deadlines and with our systems of work.

Maintain academic rigour 

What we can’t be flexible with, however, is academic rigour. It is so important now, perhaps even more than ever, to keep on planning lessons that keep our pupils on their toes: teaching that keeps pupils active in their learning rather than passive. It’s so important that we go high and teach to the top of the class, and that we maintain that standard by putting the steps in place to bring the bottom up and not the bring the top down.

I’ll talk more specifically about pedagogy in the next section, but high impact, high-rigour strategies like Cold Calling, building a No Opt Out culture are key.  Developing strategies that enable us to elicit feedback from those pupils who hide behind their microphones, to check for and challenge the understanding of all of the pupils in front of us.

Pedagogy trumps the medium.

I keep coming back to Education Endowment Fund Rapid Evidence Review paper, published in April 2020: 

“Ensuring that the elements of effective teaching are present, for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback is more important than how or when they are provided.”

So those principles, those fundamentals of effective learning and teaching in which we are expert day in, day out in the classroom, are absolutely the driving force behind what is going to work for our students now.

When seeking out the best pedagogy for online teaching, Doug Lemov’s latest book, Teaching in the Online Classroom, comes highly recommended. A key principle discussed in this text is the concept of dissolving the screen: minimising the medium in order to maximise the learning. In other chapters, Lemov takes the best bits of the TLAC network’s practice (Cold Calling, Means of Participation, Pause Points, Checking for Understanding) and contextualises them with case studies and videos of actual teachers teaching in the online world.

Focus on feedback

If you’ve heard about the transient information effect, where spoken information has a transient flaw where it’s there one minute, but gone the next, then you’ll easily grasp what I’m getting at here with online feedback. Students are spending hours tapping away into Google Docs, they hand it in, and then off it goes into the ether. It’s not in front of them – there’s no concrete representation of their work. Consequently, their effort – their learning – loses value.

Not only do we know that high quality feedback usually always correlates with success in learning and the development of expertise, but more than ever now pupils need to see an outcome to their work. They need acknowledgement that it has value and that it isn’t transient, that it is a contribution towards their development of expertise.

Lemov suggests a balance of implicit, lagged and real-time assessment: the key is finding and refining the digital tools to deliver this in an effective and meaningful way.

Thanks for reading.


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