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Getting Distance Learning Right

Questions to consider for the new normal.

As schools grapple with getting back to normal, it is becoming more and more apparent that the new normal will be very different to the ways schools have worked in the past. Perhaps the only consistent aspect in education at the moment is the inconsistency. I feel for headteachers at the moment who have received little guidance so far about re-opening in September and are finding it difficult to plan for the new term. Many head teachers I have spoken to are running 2, 3 and even 4 contingency plans depending on government advice. As a self-employed consultant some indication that I can return to supporting schools would be very welcome. One thing is clear and that is distance learning is likely to be a key feature of all school’s curriculum in the future and will need to be an essential part of any school’s longer-term plan to address the issues of the gap between eFSM pupils and their peers. This was an issue I looked at in my former blog Check in Catch up and Prepare’. In particular, I looked at the impact of the lockdown on eFSM Pupils. In a recent report by the Educational Endowment Foundation, the headline figure was that the gap could be as wide as 75% between more disadvantaged pupils and their peers as a result of lock down.

However, from my personal experience the variance in the quality of distance learning has been dramatic. Even within the same schools, different teachers have approached distanced learning in very different ways. This is not a criticism of teachers, but merely an observation and in teachers’ defence distance learning was something thrust upon them overnight. Many subject leaders will have had no previous training or experience leading on effective distance learning. It seems unfair then that once again schools have come under fire particularly in the press for the quality of provision.

But this does now beg the question: what do schools need to do to get their distance learning right? The use of webinars is something I have been looking into as a model of delivery for my company in this post lockdown world. The following questions may help schools when planning for, or considering the quality and impact of any distance learning. Particularly as part of their plan to support eFSM pupils who may well require significant additional support to catch up in the autumn term.

How can we ensure that all our pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils have access to technology?

In the past, the issue of digital deprivation has been the biggest barrier to distance learning. Whatever your feelings of how Welsh Government have handled the crisis, they have stepped up and provided free laptops and Internet access for the most vulnerable pupils, taking this issue off the table. The challenge for schools now will be how do schools provide guidance and support for those parents and carers of eFSM children as to how to use the various platforms and programmes.

What is the Quality of Distance learning?

As in the classroom, the quality of teaching experience for the pupils is far more important than the content of what is being delivered via distance learning. Having dipped my toe into running webinars, it is clear that this is a very different skill set and requires a pedagogy of its own. As the Educational Endowment Foundation point out “ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present in distance learning, for example clear explanations, scaffolding and high-quality feedback is more important than how or when they are provided. What matters is whether the explaining builds on pupils prior understanding and how pupils understanding is subsequently addressed.”

This therefore begs the question do we as school leaders need to be addressing the issue of staff training to ensure teachers have clear understanding of what the pedagogy of distance learning, or rather blended learning is? This also poses an additional issue of time. Many teachers may now well need to consider planning for learning in the classroom, as well as learning for pupils at home. As ever time is the ultimate luxury and concern for teachers. This will be the challenge to getting high quality distance learning running consistently. So, how senior leaders can be creative and flexible to give staff time, and training to be effective in both areas?

How can we ensure that pupils can still have peer interactions via distance learning?

The Educational Endowment Foundation out line peer tutoring as having the positive effect approximately equivalent to five additional months progress. In the new framework for Curriculum 2022, Welsh Government also favour schools using effective peer assessment and tutoring. Furthermore, multiple reviews highlight the importance of peer interaction in distance learning as a way to improve pupils’ engagement, motivation and outcomes.

So, the key question for schools to consider are: How do we get pupils to peer assess regularly as part of distance learning? What is the quality the peer interactions and how do we know? How do we build this assessment into the wider classroom assessment practices?

What type of approach do we need to consider for each of the types of learning?

Approaches to distance learning vary widely and have different strengths and weakness. Traditionally distance learning was called homework. After input by the teacher, pupils were expected to consolidate their learning at home with more of the same. However, distance learning gives teachers the opportunity to explore many different ways of ‘flipping’ the learning experience. Teachers need to be supported to consider which approaches are best suited to the content, ability and age of their pupils. For example, in studies quizzes where found to help learners retain key ideas and knowledge, but it is important not to use these as a replacement for other assessment methods. Likewise, games can be highly engaging and help younger children learn basic skills such as number facts and key words. But only using games is limiting the pupils’ ability to develop the necessary independent learning skills to undertake research for example.

How are we supporting pupils to work independently when distance learning, to ensure that there are positive outcomes?

As I have found working remotely, without the rigour of time tables, bells, contact with peers and at times with no fixed deadlines has been incredibly difficult. It is all too easy to put the kettle on for a cup of tea or be distracted when the washing machine clicks to signal the end of a cycle. Likewise, pupils will need to learn multiple strategies to remain focused and how to work at home independently. Wider evidence related to metacognition and self-regulation suggests that the more disadvantaged pupils are likely to benefit from explicit support to work independently. This could be done by providing them with plans and time tables, or checklists and success criterion.

One of the unintended outcomes of lockdown is that as a society we have realised that a lot of the travel we undertake is unnecessary, and many jobs can be done just as effectively from home. Some big multinational companies such as Twitter have now moved completely to a homeworking model. This has massive potential savings for companies in troubled times. If this is likely to be the future of employment then we as educators need to consider how we can prepare learners for a work place that might be at their kitchen table or in their back bedroom. How can we ensure they have the right skills to be successful remote workers? How do we teach them to cope with greater isolation without having a negative impact on their well-being and mental health and how they effectively structure their day so that they can work independently and have a successful career?

If you enjoyed this blog you may well like to read other blogs from RLC. Why not check out “ Check in, Catch up, and Prepare.” We also have a range of training and support to help your school get back to the new normal.

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