Firstly, Remote Learning or Learning from Home, as we call it in NSW, is stop-gap measure. It is not home schooling or distance education, which are chosen by families. We did not choose to go into lockdown. Teachers have not chosen to work from home and families have not chosen to learn from home. Now that we have made that clear, everyone needs to be aware that the current circumstances are not ideal for effective learning from home to occur. Due to these factors, originally I didn’t want to lend my voice to giving tips on teaching better during remote learning. However, as we (in NSW) have now entered an extended period in lockdown, I thought it was timely to give both families and schools a reminder of the difficulties that we are all facing and some tips on how we might be able to get through it better.
Why learning from home is difficult
Teachers are highly adaptable and flexible professionals. They are required to be experts in multiple fields and know the background stories of hundreds of children at once. Yet in a matter of days, they have been required to stop teaching the only way they know how and prepare for this unknown world of remote learning. This year, schools were slightly better prepared after last years experience, however they have still not known how long they need to be prepared for and under what conditions.
Some of the challenges that schools face that families may not necessarily think about:
Child A: has access to a device and a parent who can offer full-time support.
Child B: has to share one device between two siblings and their parents are also working from home.
Child C: has access to a device and a parent who can offer full-time support. However, that parent is highly stressed from being unemployed. They also have difficulties with technology and struggle with their own literacy and numeracy skills.
- Teachers need to prepare the same unit of work for all students at home, school, with devices and without devices. That means that all of the activities that are put together need to be accessible for all.
- Every child needs to be known, valued and cared for: This means that schools have a responsibility to not only meet the needs of the majority, but the needs of all. Research has shown that remote learning increases a great gap in educational disadvantage. What extra support can we offer Child C to ensure that they are not further disadvantaged?
- Schools also need to look after the wellbeing of their staff. Believe it or not, teachers are also going through the ups-and-downs that COVID-19 has placed upon us. They also have to deal with juggling work and family commitments. While some teachers thrive in the online learning environment, it places extra stress on many teachers who do not have the same confidence when using technology. Now, it’s easy to say, well shouldn’t teachers just learn as a part of their professional development? If the conditions aren’t right, learning as an adult is just as hard. I previously wrote about this here.
- Students should not be expected to be completing the same workload from home. Sometimes us adults forget that this is a totally new experience for our children as well. They are also having to adapt and respond to this new way of learning. Sorry parents, as hard as you may try, you’re still their Mum/Dad and won’t be able to replicate the environment and culture that our children get at school.
- Schools have not had any preparation time. At the time of writing this article, officially, NSW is in lockdown until the end of September, but students are only learning from home until 27 August! This is just one example of the difficulties that schools face when trying to plan an effective curriculum for students learning from home.
How to teach more effectively during remote learning
The mantra that has driven a lot of my thinking this year has been around being purposeful and meaningful. For example, what is the purpose of your Zoom meetings? Is it to explicitly teach a new concept or to check-in with students to ensure that their wellbeing is okay? If getting everyone online at the same time is a battle, can we pre-record lessons, so that students can access them whenever is best for them?
Knowing all of the difficulties that remote learning presents us, how can we still be effective teachers?
- Be Explicit: Just like in face-to-face teaching, you can’t assume that your students know how to behave in an online classroom. Teachers need to teach the new expectations and routines. Paul Moss gives a great example of setting up expectations for breakout rooms. He writes about making sure individuals know what to do in the group task by assigning roles and providing a question for discussion.
- Check for understanding. Even if we are providing explicit instruction, we still need to check our students understanding before progressing. Using tech tools like Google Forms, shared documents, Flipgrid, Padlet, Kahoot or Quizzizz can be both fun and interactive. Doug Lemov talks about the effectiveness of “Cold Calling” to check for understanding. In an online setting, that be through either the chat function or video.
- Present work in a clear and logical manner. To decrease the extraneous load (the way new information is presented) on students working memory, teachers need to think about things like:
- reducing the amount of information on a slide
- the split-attention affect, need to keep relevant information on the same slide to prevent students from having to think about two sources of information at once.
- embed information to prevent students having to open new pages
- Daisy Christodoulou gave a great overview of the research on designing video lessons and wrote how we can just share slides with a plain background and the speakers voice over the content.
- Provide models, scaffolds and worked examples. One of the big issues when learning from home is keeping students engaged and motivated. One of the things we know about motivation is that experiencing success increases our self-efficacy. Often educators can suffer from the Curse of Knowledge and forget how abstract certain concepts can be for students to understand. Models and worked examples allow students to see what success looks like and how to get there. The problem with problem solving as Neil Almond writes is that, “you can only solve problems when you know the facts really well, so well, they have transferred into long-term memory so you can manipulate those facts in your working memory to solve a problem.” When our students are learning from home, they already have to potentially deal with so many distractions (noisy household, feeling hungry, wanting to play video games), teachers need to make learning accessible for them by showing them what a good one looks like and how to get there. Doing this online can actually allow the teacher to highlight the thinking and steps that need to be taken.
- Be organised. Structure your days so that you give yourself set times for when you will be:
- communicating with students and families
- creating new teaching resources
- doing some professional learning
- providing feedback
- collaborating with colleagues
- Give effective feedback. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling like all of the work submitted by students needs to be ‘marked’. I have also heard the frustrations of many teachers when talking about students not even looking at the feedback that has been provided. Firstly, the habits and routines that you want, need to be taught. If you want students to respond to feedback, there needs to be time for them to do so. Secondly, Is the feedback timely, specific and actionable? Can you set-up a Google Form or Rubric so that work can be automatically marked or self-marked? One method that has received a lot of attention lately is whole class feedback (you can see one of my examples below). It’s a way to save time, address common errors and highlight high quality work.
How families can effectively support their children when learning from home
I take my hat off to all the parents and carers who have had to massively adjust their own lives. We know that many families are struggling with working from home and supporting their children’s learning. Also know that teachers are doing their best. However, as you can see from the various factors mentioned previously, it’s not so easy to just go from face-to-face teaching to online learning.
If your child/ren (or you) are just having a bad day or experiencing resistance towards certain pieces of work, know that it’s okay! Communicate with your teachers as to what any issues are, as we are all in this together!
Remember learning doesn’t have to start and stop at school. Lifelong learning is the end goal. We want our kids to get excited about it and if they’re not, we need to help them get there! If you’re after some fun and creative ways for children to continue learning away from their regular school activities. Here are some cool links:
- The Kid Should See This: Smart videos for curious minds of all ages
- Outschool: Where kids love learning
- Explorable Explanations: a hub for learning through play!
Our wellbeing is what matters
One of the consistent themes that pops up in all the educational research on the effects of COVID-19, is how important it is to priortise our wellbeing. When we first found out that we would be Learning from Home again this year, the message that I was promoting to staff was:
- Calm: Model the behaviour we want to see from our children
- Care: Understand that everyone will be having their own difficulties, be there to support them
- Connect: Use this time to get to know your families
Make time to disconnect from technology and don’t worry about the curriculum. Don’t stress about our students falling behind academically, because like Daniel Willingham has said, “Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” Right now, the cognitive conditions aren’t right and if students aren’t thinking, they’re not learning. So, while there are ways that teaching and learning can be more effective at home, remember that the people matter. Your relationships matter. Stay calm, connected and show that you care.
Remote Teaching Resources
- The NSW Department of Education (DoE) has put together a great set of resources to support both schools and families when Learning from home.
- Education Endowment Foundation: Covid-19 Resources
- ACER – Four elements of effective remote learning
- Fordham Institute: COVID-19 Home-Learning Resource
- Doug Lemov: Webinar on Remote Teaching
- ERRR podcast Online Learning Special
- Virtual School Victoria: Top tips for effective online learning
- Marshall Street – COVID-19 Resources
- Tom Sherrington has put together a number of blogs looking at applying effective teaching strategies during remote learning:
There has also been some research performed on the effects of COVID-19 on student learning:
- NSW DoE: Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic
- Australian Education Survey: Examining the impact of COVID-19 Report Summary
- The University of Newcastle: Evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on NSW schools