What have we learnt from 18 days of ‘suck it and see’ schooling?

Setting work for children to complete at home during a period of lock-down is not easy. You might think it is, until you try it and see the consequences. You may make the mistake of thinking that it is just like setting lots of homework. It isn’t. Homework is an add-on to lessons. It is the ‘now go and do this’. The work being set now is the lesson and the follow up task. If you think of it as like setting homework, or like setting cover for your class when you’re not there, you could be doing more harm than good.

Becky Allen has deconstructed this from her perspective as a parent of a primary-aged child here. Becky focuses on the load for parents trying to support young children, and the grief this causes when the work is not designed so that it enables maximum independence of the child, whilst not just filling their time, so parents don’t have to sit at their side all day. Parental load is an important consideration as, if we lose the goodwill of parents, we won’t be able sustain any kind of learning in the longer term.

I’m coming at this from a different perspective. I have two secondary-age children on the receiving end of valiant efforts by their school to keep them engaged in schooling and learning something. I am also married to a secondary teacher who is spending hours designing materials and supporting children in her school from a distance. Lastly, I am the headteacher who sets the expectation for teachers in my own school about what and how to go about this enormous, novel and unexpected task. I am privileged to have some excellent feedback from parents (many of whom will let us know where we are getting it right or wrong), students (we have completed a whole-school survey to find out about how students are finding the work we are setting), and teachers (who are rapidly adjusting their practice and developing expertise in response to the feedback they receive direct from students and parents).

Having access to these multiple perspectives is really helpful. On the day I write this, we are 18 school-days into lock-down. What we are seeing is a rapid mobilisation of effort, resource and expertise to figure out how to keep the momentum of schooling going. In uncharted territory, we are mapping the ground as we go. In such circumstances, feedback is key. The ‘quality’ of provision cannot be judged by the amount of work set, the time spent making resources or how cutting-edge the technology being used. For those calling for teachers to participate in ‘live teaching’, or create ‘interactive resources’ or ‘videoed lessons’, things that intuitively sound better because they are as close as we can get to what usually happens in school, I say: how do you know this is better? And how do you know that what the teacher stops doing whilst they invest huge amounts of time in such pedagogies is not of greater value: the one-to-one support, time spent carefully designing a task, following up a safeguarding concern? You don’t, so stop banging on as if you know best. In order to be more informed, we need feedback. The ‘quality’ of provision can only be judged by how well this is playing out in the home, and what this dynamic will lead to over time. We are in the territory of ‘suck it and see’.

As a headteacher, I see my role in this as making sure that this feedback is channeled back to constructive policy, guidance and training. We need an information loop. This is the only way of ensuring that what we do will improve: and improvement, not judgment, is the only game worth playing right now. Perhaps it always was.

If I sound a little defensive, that’s because I am. 18 days in and idiots on Twitter are writing letters to Ofsted to tell them schools aren’t doing enough. Back off and leave it to the grown-ups.

So, what is this feedback telling me? What I’d like to focus on here is what I consider to be the things which cause the most annoyance and unnecessary teenage melt-downs: the stress-load. We could be making this much easier for students and parents if we avoid certain triggers. I think stress-load should be a greater concern to us than almost anything else (at secondary level, at least). There is no point investing time adopting new online teaching techniques if we continue to really annoy students and parents by not considering the basics.

I hope by now that you are clear that this isn’t a critique of teachers. I might also be teaching you to suck eggs – so my apologies if the following advice is obvious. But my experience is that some students are getting really frustrated by the work set by some teachers, and it is usually when the following things aren’t in place:

1. Reassurance

If the task is going to be hard, then say that. Students think that if they find something hard it is because they are ‘thick’ (my daughter’s phrase, not mine). They panic. They get upset. They give up. Tell them it might be hard and say that that is okay – if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth doing.

2. Clarity of instruction

Is it really clear what the student has to do? I mean really clear? Is there a simple list of things to do which can be checked off (this helps the parent monitor things too)? If the instructions are buried in the PowerPoint they’ll most likely be missed.

3. One thing at a time

Content needs to be chunked much more than if students were in a lesson. Don’t set more than one lesson’s worth of work at a time unless you know your students are unusually good at self-management. You won’t cover the amount of content you would have covered in a lesson at school. Scale back your expectations about pace and coverage.

4. New content

This is a major flash-point. Adjust the balance between new content and revisiting old content so that the latter outweighs the former. When there is a new idea or new information, this needs to be explained clearly. Check the video you direct students to – have you actually watched it? Does it cover exactly what you want students to know about, or does it contain a load of extraneous information? If so, it may be the best you can find, but mitigate this by telling students exactly which bits to watch out for. Avoid extended prose unless you know your students are very skilled at extracting information from text and understanding it. Avoid research tasks which don’t tell the student which websites to look at and where the information is on the site. Use diagrams – think about dual coding (watch this).

If you are going to invest time recording voice-overs on presentations or screen-casting, now is the time to do it. A five-minute explanation may just be enough to make a concept clear. Don’t do it live – recorded material can be re-watched and re-recorded if you stutter through the first attempt. Also, students can access this just-in-time. Synchronous teaching is not the ideal, just what we have to do to make school work when we are all in the same building. In trying to replicate normal schooling, people forget that some aspects of normal schooling might be sub-optimal.

5. Make sure the task relates to the content

Students will assume that the information they need to do the task you set is provided, unless you clearly tell them otherwise. The task you set must clearly relate to the material. Watch this clip then answer these four questions. Read this text then explain in your own words. When students are left not knowing how the task connects to the information they get annoyed and give up. They won’t scan through a PowerPoint to look for the right slide. They won’t watch a 40 minute YouTube clip to find the answer to one question. Focus their cognitive band-width on the content, not in navigating the resources.

6. Tasks relating to prior learning

‘You should already know this’ – the most annoying words a teacher utters. Most won’t (or they may struggle to retrieve it). There needs to be an activity to check. If students find out that this knowledge is secure, tell them what you want them to do next. If they find out they don’t recall this knowledge, tell them what they can do about it. If you set students a task which assumes they will remember something, most will struggle to complete the task – lesson wasted. Do not set up a whole ‘lesson’ which depends on recall of prior learning – many students will be unable to do any of it.

7. Make sure everything is attached

Check and double-check that the PDF, presentation or link you say is attached actually is attached.

8. Set the work for the day the work should be set

Work piles up in a student’s in-tray. It can make them really anxious. It also makes them anxious if the work is not there when it should be there. They think they aren’t looking in the wrong place, or that the system is broken. Some will worry that they will fall behind and get in trouble. The work must appear when it is due and disappear when it no longer needs to be there. You know from your own experience that long to-do lists are stressful. We all cope better when we just focus on what we have to achieve today.

9. Estimate completion time carefully

For most teachers (in the words of Doctor Who) time is a wibbly-wobbly thing. We all say ‘two minutes left’ then give them four. We tell them homework ‘should take half an hour’ when it ends up taking over an hour. Usually, this is a minor problem. Currently, it is a major problem. Your school will probably have set guidance for how long work should take to complete. Stick to it as closely as possible. Don’t set work which students can rush through (tell them that if it took less than… then they didn’t do it properly). Give precise guidance such as a minimum word-count. Be strict about maximum time limits. Tell students that if they have been working for… then to stop.

10. Standard and extension work

Some students want to keep working. They want to be busy, or carrying on learning about the topic. Layering work so that there is stuff that everyone must do, then extension work for those that want to keep going, helps manage students with differing motivations and parental expectations. Obviously the extension work can’t be core to the curriculum – this isn’t about ‘getting ahead’ or differentiation. This is a service we can provide for the keen student, the bored student, the creative student who wants to ‘make something’, the student without any siblings to hang out with, or the student whose parent has to work all day. Let your progressive side come out, or think of it as ‘hinterland’. But make sure you are clear that this is an optional extra. And don’t set time-fillers as the main piece of work – make this slick and focused on the essential content.

11. Be clear about submission

Do you want the work ‘handed in’? When? How? What should the student do if they can’t get the technology to work? Will they get feedback? How will they know if it is ‘good enough’?

12. Where to get help

In class, teachers may use phrases such as ‘three before me’ or ‘brain, book, buddy’ to stop the avalanche of hands-up to get help. What is the at-home equivalent? What should students do when they get stuck (and they will)? If you don’t make it explicit, then you will get one of two responses: they will give up, or you will be bombarded with emails (or irate parents). The ‘I’m stuck’ instructions can be embedded in the task. Alternatively, this is where real-time interaction may be best targeted. It may be more efficient and effective to schedule a half-hour ‘drop in’ on Zoom than answer loads of emails. One ‘model’ for virtual schooling may be tasks in the morning, help in the afternoon. This means students have to try to do the work independently first, but can get your help if they really need it. Are you feeding dependencies, or training students to develop independence in the knowledge that there is a safety net?

This is a synthesis of what I’ve picked up so far. If it is useful, we can present this as a check-list for setting work:

  1. Be reassuring and be clear about what to do if students get stuck
  2. Break down the tasks and present as a list that can be checked off
  3. Introduce new content slowly and carefully
  4. Signpost where students should look for the information they need, or…
  5. Check retrieval of knowledge before setting a task which assume this is secure
  6. Only attach what is needed, and make sure what is needed is attached
  7. Make sure the work appears on time, and disappears when it is not needed
  8. Design tasks that can be shaped into the time available
  9. Be clear about how, when and why to submit work
  10. Set up and reinforce the routines you want to to adopt on the longer term.

The main aim is to reduce stress-load: that is the annoyance, frustration and anxiety which will distract students from engaging with the curriculum and erode participation and motivation over time. Let’s not make this harder than it needs to be.

Most importantly though, keep up the good work.

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