11 Months (on and off) of Remote Learning: ‘Top Tips’ and ‘Key Takeaways’ from a year interrupted

First posted on the Danes Educational Trust Blog on 08 February 2021.

The Autumn term a distant memory, we have all been developing strategies for effective remote learning since our schools ‘closed’ on 20th March 2020. Despite the complexities of the situation we find ourselves in, I feel that there have been – and still are – plenty of opportunities to develop outstanding teaching and learning online. Moreover, over the last 11 months our profession has built up an arsenal of ‘best practice’ ideas for remote learning that centre on some of the pedagogical trends that were circulating within teacher training courses, INSETs, blogs and academic journals prior to our year of intermittent lockdowns, restrictions and disrupted normality.

Therefore, this blog, which is inspired by the work of Doug Lemov, Tom Bennett, Daisy Christodoulou, Barak Rosenshine, Dylan Wiliam, Shaun Alison and Andy Tharby, offers some ‘Key Takeaways’ related to remote learning ‘best practice’. It is not in any way conclusive and probably misses plenty of great ideas but, hopefully, it will be of some use in the next few months. I have also broken the blog into sections, which include:

  • Preparation
  • Routines
  • Starters/settlers
  • Engagement
  • Teaching subject knowledge
  • Teaching subject skills
  • Review
  • Feedback

It is also assumed that most schools will be using technology similar to Google Classroom or a virtual learning environment (VLE) that facilitates presentations, videos and comments or questioning via streams/feeds of information.

Preparation

At the start of his best-selling book, Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov suggests, ‘Every artist – teachers included – is an artisan whose task is to study a set of tools and unlock the secrets of their use’ (2015, p. 1). Essentially, we need to be ready to teach, not just in terms of organisation but also following consideration of the possible ‘tools’ we have at our disposal and how these might work in our lessons, which now include our remote practice. Therefore, before teaching our remote classes, we should:

  • see teaching remotely/online as rewarding, especially if you are well prepared
  • alter lessons or reconsider activities, especially as some excellent classroom activities may not work well remotely
  • review timings of activities: these might take longer if learners need to download, open or navigate various online resources
  • consider what resources learners have at home. Not all learners have access to stationery, paper, books etc.
  • plan feedback lessons that are tailored to remote teaching (see below)

And, despite everything that is going on, continue to take an interest in best practice in relation to remote learning by reading blogs, articles and sharing ideas with colleagues.

Routines

Government advisor, founder of researchEd and all-round behaviour guru, Tom Bennett, has consistently argued that routines ‘… are your main super power’ as a teacher (2013, para. 3). As in any real classroom, in order to facilitate good ‘remote learning practice’, it is vital that we establish routines and expectations in our remote lessons. For instance, we should:

  • be consistent in the way we present work on Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint and in the way(s) our lessons are planned: this may avoid confusion
  • explain our expectations with regard to layout of work and conduct on our comments stream/feed
  • be realistic about what we want learners to achieve. Consider cognitive load theory, the differing abilities in our classes, learners’ own fatigue, too much screen time etc.
  • use praise to motivate in public, in live lessons or in private comments via your VLE
  • still apply relevant sanctions such as positive or negative house points or calls home

Starter activities/settlers

In keeping to routines, it is best to have starter or settler activities as you would in a normal classroom. This will help the class ‘settle’ as you take registers etc. as well as providing ‘wait-time’ for those having difficulty logging on. In many ways, this is similar (or even the same as) Lemov’s idea of a ‘Do Now!’ activity, which is ‘…a short activity that you have written on the board or that is waiting for students as they enter’ (2014, para. 2). Therefore, we should:

  • start each lesson with a recap of the prior lesson: this could be a task based on what learners completed last time or any type of retrieval practice activity that works online
  • continue to abide by the principles of spaced-practice and repetition: ask questions about topics from a few weeks or even months ago
  • think about easy wins to get learners feeling confident about their learning. Remind them of things they do / did well, and consider making the start of your lessons deliberately straightforward too

Engagement

Learners will be at home where there will be plenty to tempt them away from remote lessons. Moreover, many will feel fatigued as a result of the constant streaming of lessons which may well be more didactic than usual.  Consequently, simple and quick engagement activities should be planned to engage learners with remote learning. Lemov (2010) often refers to this as a ‘hook’ that grabs the learners’ attention by building anticipation of the content that will follow. This could include:

  • using appropriate media, such as pictures, music or video clips that entrance learners
  • using appropriate games or quizzes (perhaps via Google Forms/Quizlet/Socrative etc.)
  • sort narratives (everyone loves a story: “Are you sitting comfortably?…”)
  • using well pitched analogies to get learners thinking
  • sharing examples of excellent work/expected outcomes if possible

Teaching subject knowledge

Probably the hardest thing to do away from the actual classroom is to ‘teach’ subject knowledge. Poor subject knowledge can be laden with misconceptions, misrepresentations and abstract ideas that are ill-explained and take time to fathom: good subject knowledge, clearly communicated, is central to learners’ success. As Daisy Christodoulou argues, ‘The evidence for the importance of knowledge is clear. We have a strong theoretical model that explains why knowledge is at the heart of cognition. We have strong empirical evidence about the success of curricula that teach knowledge’ (2014, p. 33). There are, however, limits to what we can do here, especially as we cannot interact with our learners to check their understanding as effectively as we can in the actual classroom, but I think we should still make the imparting of knowledge the base of our lessons. Here, we can:

  • think of our screens as our whiteboard and only show what we absolutely need to in order to reduce cognitive overload
  • avoid reading text whilst expecting learners to either read it or write it down at the same time. Again this causes cognitive load
  • introduce one concept at a time and have short tasks to embed them (as with Barak Rosenshine’s idea of teaching in small steps)
  • link new concepts to what learners already know, building their schema
  • make sure our instructions and slides are ultra-clear: we can’t ‘read the room’ as we do when in the classroom (a good rule of thumb is limiting your font size to 20 and not having a screen full of text)
  • remain conscious that without our intervention we run the risk of misconceptions being embedded: address common mistakes up front
  • in addition to live lessons, consider using ScreencastifyLoom or even YouTube to explain concepts in videos and allow for re-watching
  • offer stretch and challenge tasks with further explanations. Look for relevant videos and other information on Oak National Academy, YouTube, TED or elsewhere

Teaching subject skills

Of course, it is all well and good that learners know about our subject areas, but when they return they will need to be able to put that knowledge into practice. This is particularly important for our Year 10s and Year 12s who will be getting ready for their GCSE and A-Level exams this time next year. Therefore, we need to consider facilitating exercises that encourage learners’ application of knowledge in our remote lessons. Again, as Christodoulou suggests, “… we have strong empirical evidence about the success of pedagogy that promotes the active transmission of knowledge”, suggesting that ‘practice remains perfect’ – even online. Of course, these ideas can include worked examplesmodelling processesscaffoldingguided practice etc. In order to facilitate these types of activities at a distance, we should:

  • consider how we can model expectations for a task before actually delivering it
  • use a visualiser, or turn our phones into visualisers using ‘screen record’, in order to demonstrate what we would like our learners to do
  • use plenty of worked examples
  • use ‘live marking’ of previous work
  • scaffold using appropriate sentence starters, ‘incomplete worked examples’ (partially completed examples that learners finish off by themselves), gap fills or cues of some kind (this relates to the generation effect)
  • provide guidance for what learners should do if they get stuck, for example: further (or uploaded) reading/guidance or how to ask for help
  • consider how learners might use the work they complete next lesson and further into the future

Checking learning (old school plenaries)

Barak Rosenshine discusses the importance of checking learning in his now famous Principles of Instruction. In fact, he states: ‘Checking for student understanding at each point [of a lesson] can help students learn the material with fewer errors’ (2012, p. 16). However, how do we check learning remotely? There are number ways to do this, including:

  • simply ask questions in a live lesson (target these) either verbally via microphones or in chat boxes
  • Cold Call’ learners: target them with specific questions to which they need to respond or use “pose, pause, pounce, bounce” etc.
  • using your VLE to set a separate task where learners can engage with a specific question(s) and with one another through chat boxes, break out rooms (in Zoom – but consider safeguarding here), or live online documents that everyone can add to (such as Google Docs)
  • use low stakes testing to check learning. To facilitate this you can use:

Feedback

Dylan Wiliam suggests, ‘Just as a thermostat adjusts room temperature, effective feedback helps maintain a supportive environment for learning’ (2012, p. 30). Essentially, we need to ensure we are still feeding back to our learners via remote lessons in order to help them improve. This is, like everything else, a challenge away from the physical classroom. However, it is possible, for instance:

  • whole-class feedback still works remotely. Share a whole class feedback sheet with clear explanations of what has been learned / found out + perhaps a video of us, as teacher, explaining our feedback that can be replayed by learners
  • to use Mote (or other audio recorders) to give audio feedback (see www.justmote.me)
  • to still use exemplar model answers and discuss learners’ strengths and weaknesses (as well as celebrate good work)
  • (as mentioned above with knowledge), to ‘live mark’ work or ask learners to peer assess a number of anonymous pieces of work (perhaps from different gradings)
  • for learners to still use coloured feedback pens/typing to improve their work (work in books can be photographed and uploaded/electronic documents can be uploaded)
  • to ‘flick’ through individual work from learners on a given assignment (via the technology you are using) and giving individual feedback. Although this goes against the principle of whole-class feedback, apps like Google Classroom have made this traditional approach to feedback very easy
  • to send emails or even make calls home, if you have the time

Last words

Reflecting on the last 11 months or so, I honestly feel that we can use the above ideas to develop effective online resources and sequences of activities that will go some way to making up for lost time in the classroom. We do not want to jettison all our hard work in incorporating evidence-informed practice within our pre-lockdown classroom teaching by simply posting reading material and questions online that do not aid students’ learning in any meaningful way. Moreover, I am sure we can find a use for these ideas once everything gets back to “normal”!

Andrew Jones
Challenge Partners’ Hub Lead

Recommended resources and reading

References

Bennett, T. (2017, 2 June). Getting Behaviour Right From The Start. UCAS blog.

Christodolou, D. (2014, Spring). Minding the Knowledge Gap. American Educator27-33.

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0 : 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, 36(1), 12-19.

Wiliam, D. (2012).  Feedback: Part of a System. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 30-34.

Photo credit: Nathan via Flickr (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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