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Reflection on Online Learning

Posted on: 26th Jun 2020

Like other senior leaders across the country, the news in March that students could not attend school in a traditional format, for the foreseeable future, was a daunting prospect. Not only because of the new reality we were facing as a country, but also because of the lack of expertise we had in facing this challenge. Probably, like other colleagues, I immediately racked my memory for a forgotten seminar on ‘overseeing virtual learning in a worldwide pandemic’. Unfortunately, all the professional courses I had attended ‘neglected’ to cover this. Ultimately, we were expected to navigate an un-mined minefield.

After overcoming the initial shock, we found it vital to return to our beliefs and values as a school. We believe that we need to produce ‘excellence as standard in all that we do’, that ‘every lesson counts’ and students should be able to take their place ‘at the table of opportunities’ no matter their starting point. Even though many schools will share similar beliefs, for us, coming back to these values helped in planning our journey. It made us realise that we could not launch straight into an online programme because it would be hurried and would therefore negate our mantra of ‘excellence.’ Our MAT sister school felt the same, so rather than rushing into an immediate programme, curriculum leaders from across our two secondary schools combined to consider what concepts could be taught in a virtual world. This, in turn, gave time to the pastoral teams time to ensure vulnerable students were safe, had access to a laptop and that a connection was still in place for students within the schools. Truly, they went ‘above and beyond’, producing and delivering work packs and food vouchers to families who were vulnerable.

This time lag was vital in producing a detailed plan for our students, but it came with other challenges. There was a sense of frustration from some staff, parents and students to get ‘right into the action’, but as leaders we had to remain patient so that plans were not rushed and whatever was created was sustainable and of a high quality. It was during this period that we reflected and realised that even though many of our beliefs in effective teaching were redundant in a virtual world, such as ‘cold-calling’ students and gaining a high volume of student participation in questioning, there were still principles and research we could turn to. In particular, referring to the work of Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ and ‘The Responsive Teaching Model’ helped create a template of effective practice. From this, we have ensured all lessons have had a consistent format (through either ppt or MS Teams) with the following scheme: 

  • A set of instructions
  • A retrieval starter
  • Feedback from previous reviews
  • A narrated explanation
  • A piece of deliberate practice
  • Extension tasks
  • An electronic quiz that allowed teachers to capture learning.

However, as we continually reviewed this format, we were reminded of Daniel Willingham’s work on ‘cognitive load theory’; this helped us improve our work further.

Using Willingham’s work, we have worked tirelessly to control every possible variable, ensuring students’ working memory focuses on new ideas, rather than behavioural distractions and sensory overload. This is much more difficult in a virtual world, where you cannot control each student’s environment. Therefore, we have looked at what we can control. We can control our consistency of delivery, use of dual coding in our lessons, clarity and coherency of explanations either in written or audio format. From this, we then went a step further in offering consistency by using Oliver Caviglioli’s work on dual coding so that a relevant icon accompanied each aspect of our format in every lesson.  

Despite the amazing efforts of teachers across our secondary schools, the journey has often been full of setbacks. The greatest being the requisite, relentless application of staff not matched by student engagement. This is when we had to be disciplined and committed to our plan, avoiding kneejerk reactions to alter our course because of a new blog on Twitter or an unhappy parent. This is difficult but vital as we remember students are new to this virtual world too, so in being patient and confident in our approach, we have continually seen increased engagement each week as students themselves become more confident. On reflection, there are aspects we would change, perhaps linking our independent practice on Microsoft Teams slightly quicker. However, as we welcome Year 10 students back into school and have more interactions with KS3 students, we can see how many of them know what to expect from virtual learning and can easily access work without an adult. We will continue to evaluate and adapt, but hopefully our consistency and resolve will ensure that the majority of our students have felt supported, engaged and challenged throughout this period, leading to the outcomes they deserve in the future.

CH, June 2020