The recipe for misery

There appears to be a lot of home baking going on at the moment – a useful distraction from the less enjoyable task of home schooling, I imagine. As with baking, the recipe schools are asking parents to follow will to a large extent determine the quality of the end product. You can add your own skill and flourish, but if you are following a bad recipe then nothing good will result.

What becomes apparent very quickly when running a virtual school is that some of the things schools do are more replicable than others in the environment of the home. To illustrate this, and to arrive at something meaningful in terms of how we might choose to proceed, I am going to grossly oversimplify schooling and make some fatuous points. Bear with me. What I hope to get closer to is a recipe for schooling at a distance.

What do students do all day?

A typical school day for the students at my school involves travelling to and from school (mostly quite long bus journeys), hanging around before school starts, time moving between lessons, registration and time to deliver a few notices, and break times when they get to eat and socialise (maybe the odd club). Then there are five lessons! We might consider everything aside from the lessons as being quite periphery to the main reason students are at school. I’m not sure that is the case, but we’ll go with that view for now.

Assuming a student leaves home at 7.45 am and arrives back at 4.15 pm, three and a half hours are spent doing periphery activities, and five hours are spent in lessons.

The teleportation thought experiment

If no benefit were gained from the non-lesson activities then we might consider schooling to be a fairly inefficient model for delivering education. To test whether these periphery activities have value, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that we invent teleportation. We now have the ability to make students materialise in the classroom we need them to be in for lessons. If this is all schools are for then this is ideal and we won’t mourn the loss of the other bits.

So what would we lose? None of us would argue that the travel to and from school is any loss. Students may get the chance to talk to friends on the bus, but it is more likely that they’ll put their headphones on, mess around or copy someone else’s homework. It is hardly productive time, and is certainly not worth the environmental cost if cars or buses are involved. It is also not worth the cost of the effects of poor behaviour and bullying. Teleportation is far preferable.

The time spent eating is also not any great loss. If schools could avoid the distraction of catering for students I’m sure this would be welcome. The fact that schools feed students is an annoying distraction. Or is it? Would we teleport all our students home to have lunch? Probably not. Feeding students who might otherwise not be adequately fed is a function schools fulfill in society. Playing a role in ensuring students get nutrition is a valuable function, and is something we have rightly tried to replicate whilst schools are closed. Some schools (Michaela springs to mind) might also argue that meal times at school have an educational purpose, teaching students the cultural capital of eating together.

What about the social function that schools play? Children form and maintain many of their friendships through school. Attending school enables them to meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet. Hopefully, many of these people will be ‘not like them’. Hopefully, some of these people will be annoying to them, or not the sort of people they would choose to spend time with: this is a useful socialisation process for children. In my school’s context, social mixing is also important because the students are geographically distanced from each other at home due to our semi-rural location. School is the place they spend time together in person, rather than via social media. So if we had teleportation, I would definitely bring the students in for some unstructured, social time (with the option of zapping them back home if they were a pain, of course).

The other function of school we would miss if students only materialised for lessons is being ‘known’ to adults other than those in their families. Teachers would, of course, still get to know students to an extent, but they would not get to know students in the way that a tutor, mentor, support worker or counsellor would. There are many, obvious, reasons why this function is necessary for a civilized society, not least of which is the safeguarding role that schools play. Having students go to school every day is one of the most important safety nets we have. The single, greatest concern around an extended period of school closure should be that this safety net is removed – everything else is secondary to this.

The teleportation thought experiment helps us place a value on the peripheries of schooling, and makes us realise that some of the things that happen outside of lessons are not peripheral at all – they are actually related to the primary function of schools in society.

Looking at this more holistically, there is also the whole experience of school – the combined package – that is so much more than lessons. The sense of belonging, the shared experience, the memories of messing around at the back of the class, the school trips, the sports teams and drama productions. School is greater than the sum of its parts. Teleporting in to attend a lesson would be like teleporting to the Taj Mahal for an hour and calling it a holiday.

Before we get hung up on learning…

So before we talk about how we get students to carry on learning at home, let’s recognise that we we can’t replicate school in any meaningful way. We can’t replace the experience, or most of the social, emotional and developmental functions of school. This is a great loss, possibly far greater than the ‘learning’ losses that will accrue if this lasts for too long. I’m only saying this to give a little perspective – trying to get kids to do work at home is the least of our worries.

School closure also has a hugely significant affect on parents. Many teachers find it unpalatable to think of the role we play in allowing parents to go to work, but this is a vital function of schools. When we think about how we can get students to carry on learning, it is easy to forget that the harder we push students, the more difficult we are making things for adults. If you couldn’t care less that the adults in the house are trying to work, then think of this in terms of family harmony and the future financial security of the household. Whatever ‘learning gains’ are achieved by our attempts to create virtual teaching and learning must be balanced against the ‘losses’ to the child of the anxiety and discord sown in the family home. This is an irresolvable dichotomy for schools and teachers – judging the ‘right’ amount and difficulty of work to set is impossible as the expectations created will land differently in every home. The best we can do is give options – realistic minimum requirements with optional additional work – and prioritise ways of supporting remotely over spending time designing fancy resources. To minimise the unintended consequences of our well-intentioned effort to keep students working, we need to think carefully about which parts of the teaching and learning process are replicable in the family home.

Replicating classrooms

At risk of another gross over-simplification, I think it is helpful to think of the classroom experience as consisting of the following components:

  • Instruction – teachers explaining stuff
  • Practice – students doing stuff
  • Help – teachers stepping in when students get stuck
  • Retrieval – students seeing if they recall what was taught
  • Assessment – teachers finding out what students have learnt

How replicable are these components at a distance?

Two things to note before we answer this question. Firstly, these components do not sit separately in a real classroom. The classroom (and learning process) is complex and messy, and plays out in real-time. The best we can hope for is a poor imitation of what actually happens when children are at school. Secondly, parents are not teachers (at least most of them aren’t). They will be minimally effective in standing in for you. Given they may be physically, intellectually or emotionally unavailable to help out, it is best to assume that the student is dependent entirely on their own ability and the instruction and material you provide them.

Instruction

As Steve Rollett argues here, trying to teach new knowledge to students is going to be very difficult. Students will find it difficult to grasp new concepts by reading alone – they need some discussion and exploration of the concepts to make it understandable and connect it to what they already know. We can try to replicate the bit where we stand in front of a class and explain a new idea, but we won’t be able to replicate the human interaction – the thing the teacher does when they watch the facial expressions and body language or fire off a targeted question. The immediacy of the hand going up to ask for that to be explained again is hard to replicate.

Recording yourself explaining things, or directing the student to a video of someone else doing it, is about as good as it gets. But we won’t know until much later whether students have really understood anything.

As Steve suggests, it is advisable to reconsider what we were planning to teach had schools remained open. We should reduce the amount of new content, and therefore the need for exposition. Also, it is the new content which causes the most stress at home. We won’t be able to avoid introducing students to new ideas completely, particularly if school closures last a long time, but we need to slow down the introduction of new material and connect it gradually and explicitly to prior learning.

Consolidation and support

What may be a better use of students’ time is consolidating what they have been taught previously. Retrieval tasks and practice exercises should, therefore, be a more dominant feature of home learning than of classroom learning. In a classroom environment, the teacher is available for help and checking. How can this be replicated? The only feasible ways are either by individual correspondence between the teacher and individual students (which is very time consuming) or online, real-time Q&A. Live, online lessons may be intuitively appealing as this feels like the closest thing to the actual classroom, but it is a fairly inefficient way of offering help and has all sorts of logistical problems associated with it. Therefore, an alternative may be setting students a task to do, then offering drop-in sessions for those who get stuck. The design of good retrieval and practice tasks, and the offer of support when students get stuck, is, in my opinion, what teachers should be spending the majority of time doing.

Assessment

At least for now, making attempts to summatively assess students seems fairly pointless. There is no way to create the controlled conditions required for the results of tests to be valid and reliable, so why bother? Time inefficient methods such as marking and commenting on work also seem, for the most part, unwise. Teachers should therefore focus on fairly modest attempts at assessment – scanning work, setting quizzes – with the intention of informing what they ask students to do next.

To summarise, I am suggesting that teachers scale back new content, don’t get hung up on recreating instructional approaches virtually, spend the bulk of their time choosing/designing really targeted retrieval/consolidation tasks and helping students when they get stuck, and keeping assessment informal and formative.

We cannot expect to re-create five hours of lessons each day. Students will vary in their ability to concentrate and work independently, by age and ability. For an average 15 year old, 2-3 hours of independent work each day is probably the maximum we should expect. We might also then start to offer help sessions so that we can check in, clarify, correct and encourage students with a bit of personal contact. This kind of model would be more sustainable for students and teachers than attempts to teach live, online lessons, record voice over presentations or create extensive work books. I am generalising, but the point is that less is more. Nobody learns anything if students drop out, or parents tell them to because they can’t bear the arguments that result.

The recipe for home baking

The recipe we give students to work from at home is not the same as the one we work to at school. Most of what schools do cannot be replicated whilst schools are closed. Therefore, the 8 or 9 hours a day that students commit to ‘school’ is not needed. School need only take up about a third of that time. If we ask more than this, we are risking burnout for students and parents.

What we are asking teachers to do should also change. We need to think about efficiency and opportunity cost. If teachers spend all day ‘live teaching’ or setting work, they won’t have time to support students, check they understand, and keep an eye out for those for whom school is an essential safety net.

If schools attempt to impose their expectations and methodology on family homes without significant modification, it will be a recipe for misery. Spending some time making cakes may be more valuable in the long run than all our efforts to keep students learning if we don’t keep school in proportion.

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