September, ‘robust remote learning contingency plans’ and the wisdom of trolls

Grand Pabbie | Disney Wiki | Fandom

How recent experiences of remote teaching; the observations of a US Sociologist; and (most importantly) Grand Pabbie Troll’s homespun wisdom* are steering my first steps in September and contingency planning for the Autumn. 

 

What did we learn during lockdown?

During lockdown, Dan Boorman and I hosted a forum for school leaders and research leads in which we discussed our experiences, current challenges, plans for the changing future and generally tried to help each other keep track of DfE guidance docs. 

There is a case to be made that our first forays into remote learning were driven by the needs of teachers, not students!  They were not  centrally ‘designed’ so much as they emerged. This emergence largely aligned with our need as teachers to dispense with our duties in a domain with which we had limited prior experience. 

After a while, in each school, most departments established a routine. Lessons were ‘taught’, tasks and assessments were set and marked, students were communicated with.  Eventually, teachers began to feel more comfortable with the process. 

Some employed video lessons. Some recorded explanations. Some set regular online quizzes. Some asked for work to be submitted via a learning platform. Some asked for photographs of work to be sent. Some sent out booklets and worksheets. Some updated students each week. Some did so each day. Some communicated individually. Some sent updates collectively. Some chased missing work. Some enquired for the reasons that work had been missed. 

What was not immediately obvious to us was the way in which this contributed to our individual students’ experience of remote learning.  

As a teacher myself I’m aware that we generally mean well (!) In many cases what I ‘need’ to do – explain new material, check understanding with my students, etc etc are mainly in my students’ best interests. BUT I also had a need to get my work done in a way which was manageable and (in my case) fitted around looking after two young children for most of the day. I was driven for me to get things done – email students, set assignments, share documents, chase up missed deadlines etc – in a manner which worked best for me. 

We teachers probably feel more on top of things when we have communicated all that we need to to each of our classes. In some cases, the lack of control and uncertainty we felt may have prompted work (on our parts) which served to help us feel more in control – but which students experienced somewhat differently. 

Students probably experienced much of the work pushed out by their teachers as a flood of information – much of which contained fresh demands. 

You may remember Connor – an A-level student I introduced in a previous blog. He told us that the trick, which normal schools pull off is breaking down a lot of new stuff into small, timetabled chunks. If as a student you can get up, go into school, pay attention and more or less do as directed then you’ll probably do ok. . He was overwhelmed by the sudden lurch to remote learning – soon feeling worried that as he was not up to date with every single task. 

Around half-way through lock-down students in three different secondary schools were receiving over 25 remote learning emails per-day. For a those who, until lockdown,  mainly ignored their school email account, and muddled through by getting up, getting in, asking friends about what homework is due, and following others to the next lesson – this ‘new normal’ could easily seem overwhelming. 

In school,  clear routines, fixed-length lessons and the physical presence of peers ensure that most students attend most lessons most of the time. At least leading them to the water of learning, as it were. In addition when many students are visibly (or vocally) confused, teachers often notice and adjust their teaching accordingly

The timetable also acts as to balance competing demands upon students’ time and attention. There are fewer interesting alternative temptations than at home. Furthermore,  whilst some teachers may lose sight of the wood for their own departmental tree from time to time – running multiple lunchtime catch-ups or setting ‘big tests’ which can disrupt sustainable study habits- , actual lesson time is generally pretty fixed. Even students mentally anxious about tomorrow’s big Psychology test  will attend (and potentially engage) with lessons in their other subjects each day. 

Being a student became a lonelier pursuit during lockdown. Successful navigation of the challenges inherent to learning multiple courses at once required considerably greater aptitude, motivation and resources than normal. Some students thrived – a few reporting a more positive and successful term than during normal schooling. However, it seems likely that a higher proportion of students experienced greater difficulty than would normally be the case. 

In our discussions, we agreed that remote learning was, broadly speaking:  harder to access, easier to stop, and harder to resume than  learning through physically attending a school. 

Now that we have had time to experiment and learn quickly, we may benefit from taking time at school and department level to deliberately design our remote learning provision – with lessons from our trial period in mind. How can we make remote learning: 

    • Easier to access
    • Harder to stop
    • Easier to restart 

The impossibility of the job, contingency Planning  and the importance of strategy

Yesterday. (7th August!) the DfE have issued guidance making clear that schools must have a ‘strong contingency plan’ for remote learning ready for within a month of the start of term. 

There were quickly a range of responses to this story. Some pointed out that schools had been doing remote learning since March. So the plan would be to return to doing the same. Another expressed concerns about the impossibility developing a comprehensive plan for a disruption of unknown time and length. 

The challenge school leaders face in developing a ‘strong contingency plan’  is that teaching a class successfully is probably impossible even before we add in the challenges unique to remote learning. As US Sociologist Seymour Sarson (1971) wrote: 

‘A graded school system, taking a new crop of children every year at five to six years of age, moving them through their studies in “lock-step” fashion til graduation, makes an assumption about the equality, motivation, and performance for children of similar age that the reality of individual differences rudely challenges.’

The advantage we teachers have in more normal times is that there are established routines and procedural regularities which regulate what we do. Whilst we occasionally feel overwhelmed by the impossibility of our jobs – the regularities and routines of school life prompt us to welcome the next class and do the next thing anyway. We can’t feel compelled close every gap we see, as soon as we see it, because we have year nine coming in next. So we muddle through, doing the best we can. 

AS Grand Pabbie would have it, we do the next right thing.

MagicalQuote — Pabbie: When one can see no future, all one can do...

Ironically, I’m beginning to think that accepting complexity and then seeking to do the next right thing is probably the best strategy for sustaining a long career in teaching. 

The trouble with new initiatives is often that they are framed as  solutions to a complex problem which is not amenable to being neatly resolved. Take the lockstep conundrum outlined by Sarason above – we teachers could go slower, go faster and provide extra help to those who struggle,  or  we could attempt to teach multiple lessons at once. Each option is challenging (the last often impossibly so) and each would benefit some students more than others. 

If teachers sense the expectation that our strong contingency plans must neatly tackle all of the challenges of mass schooling – remotely – then strong emotional responses are likely.  As Sarason wrote (of the US teachers he interviewed in his work)

‘The strong feeling that teachers have about the complexity of their task stems from the awareness that they are expected to bring their children  (if not all, then most) to a certain academic level by a time criterion in regard to which they have no say. Faced with numbers and diversity of children AND the pressure to adhere to a time schedule presents the teacher not with a difficult task but an impossible one.’

Demands made of staff with an eye over our shoulder – with a view to evidencing excellence for our accountability ‘partners’  – risk being counterproductive. It wasn’t long ago that many of us had systems which sometimes backfired in producing experiences like this: 

‘Sometimes I find I’m doing things with data rather than necessarily marking and planning, and I think, ‘Why?’ ‘Why?‘ Because the marking and planning will have far more of an impact on the children and I’m doing this because somebody tells me I have 12 to do this because I have to prove what I’m doing rather than just being able to get on with what I’m doing, if you see what I mean.’

(Classroom Teacher, Secondary School, Data and Workload Research, ATA & NCTL) 

We do not want to saddle staff with the need to evidence that they have robust contingency plans. We want them to develop one – whilst successfully navigating the challenges they whilst face teaching full timetables. 

We, and our students can only really do one thing at a time. Creating a context in which we are all best placed to do useful things, one at a time, is probably more important than writing out a remote learning scheme of work in addition to our regular teaching tasks. 

As a teacher, I would like to have concise explanations and carefully designed google forms for my course. I now have some, and the capacity to make them. But the idea of doing it all is daunting. Furthermore, I am concerned about the likely disparity in knowledge between different students. Some seem to have learned successfully, many not so much, some not at all. The challenges innate to teaching – moving a group of individuals forwards, simultaneously, from different starting points, and with different abilities and motivations, seem greater than normal given the diversity of lockdown learning experiences. 

Sarason concluded that ‘the modal teacher divides the adult world into two groups: those who understand this complexity and those who do not, and in the latter group they place many school administrators and most parents.

This is where steering schools seems particularly challenging. We want teachers to strive to do the best they can for their students – but we don’t want to make unrealistic demands which can serve to compound the difficulty of what is already an impossible job!  In some schools unreaslisable demands are explicitly made by leaders – i.e. ensure that all lessons are ‘fully differentiated’. In others teachers infer the same message though it is not necessarily directly stated.  It is these sorts of expectations which, I suspect, produce the worst sort of workload strain. It was, expressed by one of the interviewees in my MA research as ‘doing your best but never being good enough.’ 

In my experience, this state of mind is the one in which I am most likely to get side-tracked by tasks which might help me manage my worry by feeling busy, but which have limited utility. 

It is sensible to develop a clear remote learning strategy. However to reduce the chances of  staff returning to school in September feeling as overwhelmed as Connor did when he opened his inbox, then we will need to carefully consider the demands we make of staff and how they are communicated.

The importance of strategy: 

Before we explore an example departmental plan- in the context of my A-level Psychology teaching – we need to consider the need for an overall strategy. 

Designing remote learning across a school cannot be entirely devolved. Choices made by individuals or departments in isolation from each other could have a net negative effect upon students’ holistic experience.  Are students expected to follow their timetable each day? Can/should additional work be set or does learning need to fit into timetabled slots? How and when are students chased up for missing work/lessons etc? Who checks in with students to see if they are ok? What are we doing to identify and respond to challenges related to different experiences and learning in remote learning? 

Within the context of a wider strategy we can then support departments in working through the specifics of their own contributions. 

A remote learning strategy needs to be informed by consideration of what its core purpose is. What are we aiming to achieve through our remote teaching? 

Failing to consider this may explain how some schools seemed to simply move all off-line activity online. This lack of innovation perhaps reveals a move to replicate processes without thinking about their underlying aims. Some of these processes may not work as well remotely and we may want to consider the time-demands of remote learning differently to those of normal schooling. 

A remote learning strategy will also be shaped by consideration of the technology and set-pieces available to enact it. What are the tools available to us for achieving this?  

A remote learning strategy cannot simply be to ‘use Google Suite for education’. The previous questions need to take precedence. However, what we aim to achieve will be shaped by what is possible for staff and students. What tools will we use? Are staff comfortable using them? Can students access them? If not- what can we do to resolve the situation? How can we use the tech to foster useful communication – to, from and between students?

Lastly it will be influenced by a strong understanding of the pupil and staff experiences of remote learning so far. What have we learned so far? What structural decisions do we need to make which will influence the provision and experience of remote learning for our pupils? What are the areas in which we should leave space for departmental variation?

Deliberate collaborative development of ideas  and clear communication with staff is particularly important when the ad-hoc moments afforded by crowded staff-rooms and shared lunch-times be few and far between for a sustained period .

Furthermore, student voice – listening to the experiences and feedback we get from students (and parents) is essential. Here there is a fine line to walk. The accountability culture we work in, and the pressure many of us feel to get things ‘right’ can make it hard to seek and listen to. This, plus the time, energy, and often identify which we invest in what we do, makes  it all too easy to see feedback as personal criticism. 

We may feel inclined to ignore negative feedback because it challenges the efficacy of something which we have worked hard at producing. Or we may conclude that the mixed messages we receive – too much work, not enough work etc – indicate that making changes is futile as it’s impossible to please everyone

Alternatively, it is possible to accept too quickly the most vocal feedback and requests which we receive. This can lead to knee-jerk reactions which may well have unexpected negative effects and which hamper a school’s capacity to make strategic improvements.

However, with conscious effort it is possible to gather useful feedback about the remote learning experience. If conducted regularly then we stand a good chance of picking up on trends or issues which are shaping the experience for our learners and which may prompt changes to our processes. 

Remote learning strategy at at dept level…

In September.  I would like to create an environment in which me and my students are steered towards doing the next right thing. 

For my students, the next right thing is learning the next new idea and spending some structured time each week reviewing (or learning) ideas from earlier in the course. 

The course which I teach (Psychology A-level) has a topic based structure so that learning the next thing in year 13 is not dependent on knowing the specifics of a yr 12 module studied (or not) during lockdown. I appreciate that this reality will differ in different contexts. 

The next right thing need not involve panicked attempts to cram missed knowledge for high-stakes internal  tests. This is often disruptive to regular learning activity and of limited value as much of what is crammed will soon be forgotten. 

For me, the next right thing will be to focus on teaching new ideas as clearly as possible – and with a view to creating and reusing explanations and quizzes which can work remotely as well as in physical school.  

I also would like a build in regular (but not excessive) communication with each student. Over the Spring lock-down I eventually pared this down to weekly emails praising students for tasks completed/quizzes/lesson attendance and which normally included a personalised comment or question. There were also ad-hoc communications (prompted by students/parents/other staff) but I was keen to give momentum and build/sustain communication channels with students over time.

The above element – and an aim of encouraging greater peer-to-peer interaction are aspects I’m particularly keen to improve/refine through finding out what others are doig, and my speaking with my students when term re-starts.

We’re hoping to make a system which is easy to start, harder to stop and easy to pick up again after time away. We’re also keen to communicate the plan clearly with students to help reduce the risk of ‘catch-up’ panic, and to help reassure them that they can succeed despite uncertainty around the form schooling will take over the next year. 

The draft plan is as follows: 

We will aim to build a clear and predictable routine for year 12 In each topic, students will hear clear explanations, consider model answers and be provided with a quiz to check their understanding of key ideas.  The explanations will be recorded  for reviewing and we will offer follow up study sessions after each assessment (either within lesson or separately depending on scale of need).

We will explain to our students that they need to focus initially on getting into the routine of doing three things each week.  We will also make clear that should school close (or they need to self-isolate) then we will continue with the same basic process, and the same three expectations. We will complete these as much as possible within lesson time, at least to start with. We hope that  relatively quickly, students will be aware (and getting into the habit of!) doing the next right thing. 

Capture

As teachers we think that producing the following  resources along the way will be useful.  I plan to make a video explanation, by recording a google meet on my ipad, after I’ve run the same thing live with my four classes.  This timetable will help me to focus on doing useful things in my PPA time. It is hopefully a manageable demand and will lead to a useful resource by the end of the year.  It should help make ‘catching up’ as practically accessible as possible. 

Topic Teaching Modelled answer Google form quiz Exam pro links
For each specific sub-topic (i.e. ‘Ainsworth’s Strange Situation’ A short video explanation of the topic.  An example student answer. 
Question will be written as link – so students can try it out before seeing model answer. 
A short, self-marking assessment to check your understanding of the core ideas.  Example exam questions. 

Year 13 will follow a similar routine. The only addition we will make is that each fortnight we will ask them to try out the yr12’s google form assessment. If it highlights a weaker area for them they can access the available resources and/or attend the follow up sessions.  Over the first couple of terms they will review each module from year 12 a systematic and manageable manner. 

We’ll introduce these ideas to a number of students and hopefully use their feedback and suggestions to refine them.

For now, I feel like I’ve a clear plan for September onwards. The overall shape is in place but I am happy with the idea as the situation unfolds the specific content and weekly tasks etc can be refined and improved. In a sense, I have managed my worry about the uncertainty ahead but hopefully in a way which leads to useful action and prompts me to do the next right thing when the busyness kicks in…

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