Teaching to an empty room

I recently planned and delivered a collection of rhetoric lessons as part of the Oak National curriculum for English, which will be available for schools to use as of September. I learned a great deal from these four weeks and it made me reflect upon the challenges we have faced around continuing to provide a curricular menu through what was an uncertain few months , but also led me to consider how what we have learned can be harnessed as we return to school for the new academic year. I also felt very privileged and honoured to work as part of a team or amazing English teachers and the CPD meetings undertaken during that time were hugely beneficial in helping me write this blog.

Certainly, as I write, we will all almost be back in school with all students, wherever possible. However, less certain is how that might look over a long term period for learning, and as we look back on the earlier part of this year, we can consider whether striving to meet the same standard in a remote context as the one which we meet when in the classroom is viable. Speaking to several teachers, remote teaching resulted in teachers wading through utterly uncharted waters and experiencing a newness to the craft of teaching with they hadn’t perhaps experienced as such an acute level. Not only getting to grips with how teaching might look in this context, but how our existing approach as teachers down to the most minute details transfer to an online classroom: tone, expression, micro- decisions, praise. Knowing when to stop. Knowing the subject well enough to know when to stop.

The Oak National ‘Sprint’ project provided me with the opportunity to view such intricacies of teaching not only within my own practice, but in that of others. It served to reaffirm and reinforce so many words that Claire and I have written in Symbiosis, but most importantly, served to provide underpinning principles for good solid teaching that, irrespective of your place behind a screen or in front of a class, stand the test of time. Remote teaching could never be compared to teaching in the classroom, because the two scenarios pull from different resources altogether. However, whilst the context of remote learning places different demands upon both student and teacher-  working without an informed landscape of prior knowledge, and without the luxury of being able to question or confirm- there are still significant ways in which we can draw some principles for remote working. Perhaps it is just a matter of eradicating attempts to compensate for what is lost, and instead, working with what is possible. I drew together a set of principles that underpinned the lessons, which I intend to continue to consider when I return to a classroom next week. 


Structure learning for maximum attention

In addition to the physical environment, there is a great deal of gravity sought from the way in which we set up learning through the overall structure of the lesson, and the language used to plot out the present- this is what we do now- and the future- what’s coming, or what you should expect next. By making these announcements to students at a micro level within your classroom dialogue, it enables them to frame their focus upon a task, or where the task sits within a wider structure of the lesson as a whole. For instance, setting out the agenda of the lesson ahead enables the storyteller of us all to establish a sense of ceremony to the learning, but also ensures that we are clear in where attention should be directed. 

Instead of, ‘pens out, date on the board,’ perhaps we open with, ‘last time, you may remember we explored the fascinating language that Dickens used to depict the first time that Scrooge was moved emotionally within the novel. We shared the unusual way in which Dickens revealed this vulnerable side to Scrooge’s character by allowing him to shed a tear in front of the ghost, however, he didn’t admit- not even to himself, I would argue- that he was upset. Today, we will consider this use of emotion as Scrooge encounters another long-forgotten memory, explore the way in which Dickens presents his response, and maybe even draw a comparison with the reaction we say before. ‘ 

I know- the English teacher has a slightly easier task here! However, I would argue this has a place within any subject, in that we not only create a sense of cohesion, but direct attention with a demeanor that can only be described as loyal to the subject. We draw from the last learning episode, we use narrative to draw the connection between then and now, and in doing so, we centre the attention back to the work through the use of the subject itself Most importantly, we do so without compromise to the subject through gimmicks or dilutions, to establish what work lies ahead, and its placement within the wider journey of the text/unit/concept. 

How much is too much?

Whilst the research to inform chunking information is extensive, making content manageable is actually rather challenging to weigh up and respond to in real time Even when planned beforehand, ensuring that new knowledge imparted has not resulted in cognitive overload is a process that relies upon the ability to be responsive as a teacher. We can never truly guess the point of overload- planning for manageable pitstops is largely a process that comes as a consequence of knowing the content, or knowing the student. However, simply ensuring that we are aware of the fact that due to the fragility of memory, knowing when to stop is a movable variable is incredibly helpful to know. Instead, we can look to questions, low stakes testing, or using silence within the classroom as key guiding measures for seeking out what is not known. Our questioning in particular is most effectively used when it results in finding out what students have not grasped, as opposed o simply sharing what one student does. Equally, delivering content before then posing questions and establishing silence for students to think hard is incredibly powerful, not only for establishing how much is too much, but for the student to have the opportunity to pause over the content for themselves, but the inclusion of the questions ensures that they are an active participant engaging with that content.

Taking the time to consider not only when to stop in your classroom, but what will follow is an incredibly powerful way to ensure that we teach for key moments for students, and not simply where we as experts expect to stop. Just because it’s the end of the chapter four, doesn’t mean I need to teach to the end of chapter four: the moments we pause should be entirely informed by the complexity of the knowledge taught, and gauged by how well we know that students need, or do not need the time to wrangle with it before the next moment.

Move on, or stay with me

This was as a result of a discussion with Caroline Richards, who made an element of classroom practice far more explicit to me as a consequence. After spending a considerable amount of time in the classroom with a visualiser, drawing upon various methods to model exemplar work or the process to create it, knowing how much support your students need before working independently is again, difficult to ascertain. Remotely, this is impossible. Instead, providing a model exemplar and then inviting students to work independently if they feel able, or alternatively, to continue to engage with the process through modelling is effective because it invites students to continue to receive guidance through watching you as an expert, but in what is fundamentally the lowest of stakes, where they balance the expectation of independent work at the end of the modelling episode, with the support of understanding the process to as great or as little as they feel is necessary before attempting independently for themselves. Moving far from scaffolding of the past, where maximum support was reached after a multitude of help sheets, leaving the most supported students with very little knowledge of what the final article should look like, this approach invites the students to make the decision, whilst maintaining expectation of quality. As it should be!

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