I often listened with jealousy when my partner and friends talked about working from home - later starts, pyjamas all day and constant coffee breaks sounded amazing (insert winking emoji here). Alas, being a classroom teacher, I never imagined a situation where working from home would ever be a possibility let alone a long-term reality. Well, what do you know? It became real very quickly and taught me a great deal about how I teach and how my pupils learn.
I am a subject teacher at an independent prep school (I say as I duck to avoid the rotten fruit). I have a sad feeling that “normal teaching” is a long way off. Teaching remotely doesn’t look like it will need to happen in September but it could well be required in the future. I know teaching remotely doesn’t look the same for everyone, but we should all be open to new ideas and strategies and also, where possible, use our own and others’ experience to prevent some easy to make mistakes and time-wasting misconceptions.
My pupils are fortunate enough to use tablets and having used these tools for 4 or 5 years both the pupils and staff are comfortable with them. The value of having access to and effective use of technology was totally underestimated when we transitioned from classroom to remote teaching. Long before the lockdown, my classes and I were, when appropriate, sharing resources, editing and annotating activity sheets and providing marking and feedback using this technology. The key change brought about by the pandemic is the way we, as teachers, “transferred” our subject knowledge to the pupils - enter Zoom.
Zoom was quickly agreed by our SMT to be the tool that would link our teachers and pupils. Providing “live” or real-time lessons for our pupils was initially considered a logical, appropriate and achievable platform for delivering lessons and as we embarked upon lockdown just before the Easter holidays. That is how remote learning would look. Easter was spent watching YouTube tutorials for Zoom and trying out the functionality on friends and families. However, pretty quickly we came across a number of serious barriers…
- Live lessons (LL) that mimic the timetable would mean our pupils would need to be on their screens for 6 or 7 hours a day.
- Similarly, our teachers, many of whom look after children or loved ones, would be expected to be tied in for a similar chunk of the day. (Imagine a parent with two young children trying to deliver 5 different hour-long live zooms every day)
- Sticking strictly to a timetable isn’t possible for all families and if pupils are prevented from accessing the LL they should not be disadvantaged by missing it.
- Security on these LL was discovered to be a concern - fortunately we were not affected.
While some staff still did LL, most opted for pre-recorded lessons (PRL) instead (without wanting to talk too much tech, Zoom is well known as a live, conference call style platform, but it also allows users to pre-record a chunk of video which can then be saved and shared with the intended recipients - pupils in this case). This system meant the work for the week ahead would be shared via an online platform by 8am on Monday morning. Pupils were encouraged to do English when English appeared on their (revised) timetable and History when it was supposed to be History. At these times, teachers were “online” to respond to questions, offer feedback and handle (m)any technical issues. No live video was expected here. We did, however, explain to parents and pupils that they could do the sessions when it suited them and their family best - we aimed to prioritise flexibility. These are a few (but really significant) advantages of opting for PRL...
- PRL provides freedom for pupils and their families. Some pupils chose to wake early and do 4 or 5 hours of work so that they were done by lunchtime. Families also had the freedom and autonomy to take a “staycation” or day out so remote learning took a back seat; however, knowing what work had been set meant it could be done in advance or when they returned. We really wanted families to do this. In the weird circumstances of the pandemic, making the most of the weather, precious family time and managing anxieties were all aspects of lockdown we didn’t want to clash with LL.
- The PRL was (and still is) always available. Pupils could re-watch, rewind, pause the video explanation until their understanding was solid. These videos are available over the summer for pupils to access for reinforcement and recap if they require them. Pupils could self - differentiate by choosing the pace with which they covered the new material.
- Following on from above, PRL unintentionally became a bespoke revision resource.
- Teachers have the freedom to work in their own time. The well-being of teachers around the country is something I predict will have suffered immensely over the last 3 or 4 months (and continues…). PRL can be created in the evenings, when children are asleep, using a couple of hours on the weekend or whenever it suits the individual. Opting for this strategy, teachers could manage their homelife, care for loved ones and even leave the house for a few hours to exercise or enjoy the sunshine with their family (perhaps like those with numerous other occupations were able to do).
Why are Live Lessons in demand (and by whom)?
We did parental, pupil and staff surveys every few weeks during the summer term to gauge what we were doing well and what we could improve. The majority of pupils and staff preferred PRL: reasons for these choices included better understanding, greater progress and more flexible learning styles. When parents showed a preference (sometimes an irrational demand) for LL, their explanation was along the lines of… “online lessons tied their children down and gave them the freedom to do some meaningful work” - there was never a mention of the learning being better due to LL. Government, too, criticised (mainly state schools) for not providing enough LL. Perhaps the government and parents who harbour frustration at the lack of LL feel that if teachers aren’t teaching live, they are having a late start, sitting in their pyjamas and having constant coffee breaks. I can see why many (non-teachers) hold the assumption that LL will be better than PRL, but the evidence suggests otherwise.
What have I learnt?
- Pre-recorded videos are going to become a regular addition to my lessons even when I return to classroom teaching. With a short 5-minute explanatory video, I have provided a resource that can be watched at various speeds and numerous times (differentiation). Additionally, it can be shared with pupils and parents to assist those children who require scaffolding and support at home. It also doubles as a revision tool to use before assessments or at the end of a topic. PR videos can replace my usual explanations in a lesson. Explanations that go off on tangents and get derailed by an unconnected question or incident of poor behaviour. These explanations are “lost” as a resource once they leave my mouth (sometimes thankfully). While pupils watch these videos, it will also provide 5 minutes for me to visit the students, check homework was completed, offer help or assistance while the others are engaged.
- Chunking is key. I progressed to recording my videos in sections; asking pupils to pause the video, read a resource, complete a short task and then un-pause once completed (the different times pupils take to follow these instructions links to the differentiation mentioned above). I found an obvious improvement in levels of quality and completion rates when compared to a 10- or 15-minute video without obvious breaks and intervals. With a LL or even in real time in the classroom, when I move on with the lesson there will inevitably be pupils who have not finished the task.
- Delivery makes a big difference. Having taught for 12 years, I’d never seen myself teach. Watching some of the PR videos demonstrated obvious things that I was great at, but also habits and idiosyncrasies that must decrease the effectiveness of my teaching. It felt like personal CPD.
- In the classroom I would normally give so much guidance and support that almost all pupils submitted the same work - how boring. Seeing the natural variation and the different interpretation of my activities was refreshing and it meant marking and feedback was more enjoyable.
- I will save so much paper in future.
In conclusion, the pandemic shocked us all but it had its silver linings. In over a decade of teaching, I never grew as much or thought as creatively as I did in the weeks we were locked down. It’s easy to worry excessively about the pupils who did not “engage” fully in remote learning. This will have an impact especially on pupils who rely on schools as a safe place, for structure and for something as simple as a healthy daily meal. But it mustn’t be forgotten that over 13 years of school, missing one term amounts to around 2.5% of an education. As passionate and devoted teachers, we should be confident that, with the incredible creativity and progress we have made due to the pandemic, we can not only catch up the missing 2.5%, but we can actually surpass it.
Edited by Jules