Not remotely impressed

One of the most pertinent questions this week in education is who is best able to judge standards of remote teaching.

The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, thinks it is parents and Ofsted. At least I assume that is his belief as he has encouraged parents to complain to Ofsted if their school is not delivering satisfactory remote teaching. His belief in parents to be able to extrapolate from their personal experience, based on their own assumptions about what effective remote teaching looks like, to conclude that the entirety of the school’s provision is inadequate has raised a few eyebrows. His belief that Ofsted will then have the insight, powers, or resources to respond has apparently provoked the ire of the Chief Inspector.

Williamson’s error (or one of them) that makes him appear so naive and inept to those working in schools is that he confuses two quite different concepts: expectations and standards.

We all have expectations of each other and the institutions that we engage with. We form a view on what someone else should do for us and whether they are meeting these expectations. These expectations may help us take a position on the standards being delivered, particularly when it comes to organisations. We may remark on the ‘poor customer service’ we received, or be pleasantly surprised by how quickly our product was delivered, or sing the praises of our ‘wonderful NHS’ following a spell in hospital.

Humans have a tendency to extrapolate from their first hand experience to universals. If our personal expectations are not met, we may make sweeping generalisations about general standards. This is a form of attribution bias whereby we attribute an isolated error as evidence that there is an underlying flaw in operations, character, or standards. When a car pulls out in front of us, we accuse the driver of being useless when in fact they might just be having a really bad day, or had a momentary lapse of attention. Falsely attributing isolated errors as firm evidence of inherent ‘badness’, or equally isolated positive experiences as firm evidence of superiority, is something we all do.

We might whimsically imagine a scenario where we are driving home from the hospital praising the ‘angelic’ nurse who cared for us, when that same nurse cuts us up at a junction and gets branded a ‘f****** idiot’.

I come across this effect when handling parental complaints (which are fortunately quite infrequent in my school). The complainant has what may be a justified and legitimate concern with the way the school has handled something, and they are often understandably frustrated and angry as it affects their child. For the most part, parents want to resolve the specific matters which are causing concern, but occasionally it tips over into a ‘your school is terrible’ narrative as the complainant extrapolates their personal experience to make sweeping generalisations about an entire organisation. Their personal expectations have not been met, ergo the standard of service generally must be inadequate.

There are many expectations placed on schools. Williamson points to the expectations set out by the Department for Education with regard to remote teaching (published just the day before he started threatening schools about what would happen if they weren’t meeting them). What he was actually asking parents to do was to raise a concern if a school was not meeting these expectations. By bringing Ofsted in – and remember that this stands for Office for Standards in Education – he was wrongly claiming that these expectations were in fact absolute standards, or at the very least a useful proxy for the quality of educational provision. However, Ofsted are an independent inspector of standards, not a governmental enforcer. They know the difference between government expectations and school standards.

But worse than this, Williamson, deliberately or through ineptitude, implied that parents should raise a complaint to Ofsted if their personal expectations were not being met. Somehow he expects Ofsted to sift through this pile of ‘customer perceptions’, determine which may be evidence of a legitimate concern about standards, and swoop in to inspect.

Again, this misses a fairly fundamental point: no-one knows what good remote teaching looks like! No-one. Not parents. Not the DfE. Not Ofsted. Not even teachers or headteachers. We will all have an expectation about what should happen, but this expectation is based on scant firm evidence about standards. We may all hold opinions on whether something meets our expectations, but this does not equate to a valid assessment of the quality of provision.

The above claim warrants a little unpacking, so I’ll back it up with four points:

  1. We still don’t know what good classroom practice looks like

We remain remarkably ignorant about what good teaching is, even when it happens in the normal way i.e. in a classroom. I know the cognitive science fans out there will beg to differ, and I concede that we know more than we did about how an individual learns than we did a decade ago. However, we are not teaching individuals: we are teaching classes. As Nuttall illustrated, we don’t really understand the dynamics of the classroom and we are certainly not masters of it.

When we move to remote teaching, it is tempting to think that we try to replicate what happens in the classroom online, but that is not possible, and quite possibly not desirable.

Much has been written about this already, so I’ll use just one example to illustrate the difficulties and problems of a ‘replication’ approach.

In a (real) classroom, teachers will ask students questions, and they will either answer or evade answering. For some pupils, this is a fear-inducing possibility. Teachers develop expertise in this very specific aspect of their craft and build knowledge of the individual pupils they teach. Teachers learn to pitch questions to individual pupils, they anticipate their response, they watch carefully for their reaction and adjust their approach accordingly. It is a nuanced art which requires considerable tacit knowledge. Regularities form in a class: norms of behaviour which provide psychological security for pupils as they know what to expect and how the lesson will play out. This helps build confidence, and the skilled teacher will move pupils towards greater levels of participation.

When we move to the online world this subtle dynamic shifts. The technology, and the teacher’s competence in using it, affects the way questioning works. This can heighten anxiety for pupils. For example, they may suddenly feel very exposed by being asked a simple question. Whereas in the classroom, with all desks facing the front, the pupil would lock eyes with the teacher and be encouraged by their facial expressions and body language, and be able to block out the other pupils’ eyes upon them, and the expectations of the class. Now, the pupil may be able to see the faces of the whole class before them, or be left staring into a void, not knowing what response their answer may receive. My daughter (a normally confident and vocal student) described to me the stress she felt in an online lesson this week as the ‘spotlight’ of the teacher’s question suddenly fell on her. She felt far more exposed than in her normal classroom environment; more vulnerable. She was left feeling stupid and embarrassed, vowing she would not attend the next lesson.

This example highlights just one aspect of a very complex dynamic that is teaching. Teaching online is not just doing what you did in the classroom, just in a virtual classroom. It requires the teacher, the pupil, and the ‘class’ itself, to re-form. Pedagogies may be superficially transferable, but the way a lesson plays out will be fundamentally different.

Even if we were to find that we are able to largely replicate real classrooms online, once we are practiced enough and get the technology right, is that even desirable? Teaching (in its normal form) accommodates and makes the best of a variety of inconvenient constraints: fixed lesson times, the physical limitations of the room, the fact that you have to keep the same pupils in the same classes week-on-week, Johnny poking Sammy in the arm with a ruler because he accidentally nudged him. How much time is spent with teachers supervising pupils doing independent work just because they are required to stay in the room and monitor behaviour? It is a sub-optimal set-up which only a fool would replicate in its entirety.

We have had mass schooling in this country for decades, yet we are still far from being able to reliably judge what quality teaching looks like. We have had mass remote-teaching for a matter of weeks (16 school weeks in total to date, I believe). Why does Gavin Williamson labour until the assumption that Ofsted, or indeed anyone else, knows what ‘good’ looks like?

2. There is no ‘best fit’

What is optimal for one pupil may not be optimal for another. Furthermore, by better meeting the needs of one child, you may be disadvantaging another.

This dilemma is particularly apparent in the debate about how much live, online teaching is desirable. If a school delivers three one-hour lessons online each day there will be almost no pupils or parents saying this is optimal. They will either call for more, fewer, or a different pattern and duration.

For some parents, knowing their child has to attend five hours of lessons a day may be their preference, particularly where they leave the child unattended and will be contacted if their son/daughter ‘truanted’. There is nothing wrong with a parent wanting this, but it is a pragmatic coping mechanism for the parent which provides a false reassurance about whether their child is ‘engaging’ in school, and does not mean they are actually learning anything. Rocking up to every lesson, letting it go over your head whilst checking social media on your phone, will not be optimal for that child. Being asked to complete an independent task off-line then submitting this for feedback delivers accountability, raises expectations of engagement, and may result in greater understanding.

For another parent – one who is at home to provide support but has limited access to IT for their three children and not enough rooms to have them studying separately – a constant stream of live lessons may be inaccessible. Furthermore, by freeing up their child’s teachers from constant online delivery, her child with special educational needs may receive some valuable small group support from their teacher, whilst the rest of the class get on with some set work.

Before we, as parents, reach a judgement, we should remember that teachers are not teaching individual children: they are teaching a class. The fact that what is provided does not exactly meet your child’s needs or your own preferences is laid bare to you when they are not physically in school, but this is what is happening every day in classrooms. Your child’s needs are never perfectly catered for. Schooling, by the very way it is set up, can only achieve imperfection when viewed from the point of view of an individual recipient of education. We cannot, as an individual parent, perceive the diversity of needs catered for or the trade-offs that mean that meeting our demand will have consequences for others.

This is yet another thing Gavin Williamson appears to not understand. Whilst it is entirely legitimate to discuss with your child’s school if they are not getting on well at home, and express your views about what would benefit them, to encourage parents to report their schools to Ofsted because the offer is not a good fit for their child’s particular needs and circumstance is to assume that the fault lies in school incompetence, not in the fact that schooling is a complex, imperfect, diverse, messy endeavour. The only way to improve from the current position is by encouraging parents to do the exact opposite of what he has asked them to do – to work with schools to understand how things are working or not working for individual children, and seek to makes things better together.

3. The uncontrollables have increased

One of the great things about school is that it simplifies the process of teaching and learning. Much of what schools and teachers do is to reduce the number of variables and the amount of spontaneity that they are having to deal with so that there can be a focus on the curriculum.

Remote-schooling makes it much harder to simplify and focus. It is very difficult to ensure students are present, to reduce distractions in their learning environment, and to keep them on task.

One of the reasons I have been given by a parent for having live lessons all day is that they then know that when they go off to work in the morning their child will have to get out of bed and attend their first lesson, else we will report them as absent. The implication was that it is the school’s responsibility to provide an incentive for their child to get out of bed in the morning. I was tempted to ask whether they would like me to personally come to their house and make them breakfast too?

Don’t get me started about the blurring of roles between schools and parents… frankly, we have allowed ourselves as schools to be the patsy for many of society’s ills by too readily accepting the responsibility for sorting out stuff that isn’t in the realm of our expertise or influence. I suppose it was inevitable from the first time we asked parents to send their children to us to learn to read and add up, instead of the parents doing it themselves, that someday schools would be expected to teach children manners, ‘make’ them do homework, provide for their emotional needs, and generally do most of the things that parents are better placed to do.

So if you think that remote teaching is just like school, but online, you are in denial of the effect that being present at school has on simplifying the educational process. Schools are suddenly expected to reach even further into the family home to exert influence and provide structure from a distance. In many cases, parents have taken on this role (to the detriment of their day-jobs and well-being), but others expect the school to fulfil this function. If there were an agreed demarcation of responsibility things would be easier, but the differing expectations of parents, children, schools, and the government mean that there is significant potential for disgruntlement and confusion.

4. The need to transition

Let us not forget that on Monday this week we expected to have all students back in schools immediately (for primary schools) or by the 18 January (for secondary schools). At 8pm, or thereabouts, on Monday night we were asked to move to full remote learning. Two days later, we learnt what the government expected this should look like. On Thursday, Williamson was encouraging parents to complain to Ofsted if schools weren’t meeting expectations.

Now, we have had time to prepare for this eventuality. In my own school, we invested heavily in technology and training, drafting and agreeing a comprehensive remote learning plan for seven different possible scenarios. This meant that between 8.30pm on Monday night (when I emailed staff) to 9am Tuesday morning (when full remote learning started) we were geared up to action our contingency plans. We had learnt many lessons from the first lockdown and were ready to raise our game.

However, snapping straight from in-school to full remote learning is neither easy or advisable to rush. As the EEF point out in their summary of research into remote learning, the quality of delivery trumps the method. In other words, a high quality task set by the teacher is preferable to a low quality lesson delivered by them online.

In the first lockdown, in my school we delivered some online lessons to Year 11 and above, and were gradually building expertise in this. Our ambitions this time are to provide these to all age groups. However, we have no individual or collective expertise in providing this to younger students – and it is quite a different thing delivering an A Level lesson to a small group of 17 year olds than it is a class of 30 Year 7s. It is clearly advisable to build gradually towards whatever frequency of online lessons you aspire to deliver than it is to jump in and flood students with mediocre or poor quality provision, crowding out the high quality asynchronous provision they would otherwise have received.

Once again, Williamson’s ‘just do it – what are you waiting for?’ mentality threatens to reduce the quality of provision, not secure it. Granted, there needs to be some sense of urgency and collective efforts to deliver remote teaching plans quickly and effectively. If schools are just sitting back, looking at this as an extended winter break, then sure, give them a kick. But it is more likely that they are facing significant barriers, struggling to adjust, or just taking a measured approach which makes the best of a dire situation. To assume otherwise just shows that you haven’t met many teachers and headteachers recently.

So, as teachers like to say, ‘what have we learnt?’.

Remote teaching:

  • Is even more poorly understood than normal classroom practice
  • Is something most teachers have hardly done before
  • Involves more diversity and uncontrollable variables than teachers experience in school
  • Suddenly opens up the private world of the classroom to parents, revealing the messy and imperfect reality of schooling.

Inevitably, the quality of education will suffer. Inevitably, teachers and pupils will need time to adjust. Inevitably, we will get better at it the more we do it.

It is quite reasonable to have expectations of schools around remote teaching, but we should not confuse these for standards. This means that we can choose to check for compliance, but should not fool ourselves that we can quality assure. We can set out minimum requirements, but should not make the mistake of calling these minimum standards. We can complain that schools fall short, but should not assume that any one perspective or set of criteria is anywhere near sufficient to cast judgements on the universal quality of education provided.

Given more time, we may build the knowledge base we need to begin to make judgements about what is ‘good’ or ‘better’ when it comes to teaching remotely. But I hope we won’t have that opportunity. In the meantime, shouldn’t we all be throwing our support 100% behind schools and help them learn, respond, and survive?

My expectation of our Education Secretary is that he backs schools. Sadly, he continues to undermine us.

One thought on “Not remotely impressed

  1. Thank you for putting into words the range of emotions, frustrations and experiences I have had since returning to work in the New Year!!
    Best wishes


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