Reaching through the screen

Since March, I do feel as though I may have spent almost as long speaking to the walls of my house as much as I have when talking to human beings in real life. The whirlwind operation of Oak National’s sprint project in July, weekly Litdrive CPD live sessions and more recently, a combination of both pre recorded and live keynotes, webinars, panel discussions and workshops have prompted me to rethink how I actualise my thinking to others: more so, how I package this in such a way that it not only conveys the key messages of what I want to say without a danger of dilution, but also how I can replicate the feeling of connectivity that comes with such events.

Live educational events have long been one of my favourite ways to share my practice, because I learn so much as a result of the discussions that come after running the session itself. The conversations that follow on from events are valuable not just (I hope!) to those that attend, but to me as well. It enables me to see what has been taken from the event, to what extend that aligns with what I intended to convey, but also the impact that it has further down the line. Only last week, I was in discussion with a teacher that attended my session ResearchEd Northants last year and how it is had shaped their thinking on modelling. Subsequently, it poses the question: is it possible to replicate this in an online forum? What can both I, and those attending do to make this happen?


I’m not one for a PowerPoint. I find that trying to streamline my ideas or thoughts into a linear sequence which PowerPoint seems to favour is problematic, because it means I need to always know the exact direction I’m headed in. Now, of course, there is to some extent a blueprint before I speak, but I often pull backwards to previous ideas or recap with key messages from the start to build up an overall sense of cohesion when speaking. How a current idea link back to our overarching question perhaps, or how might this idea actualise itself in a school setting alongside an idea mentioned previously. PowerPoint is not our finest tool here, because to do so with the reduced attention that is inevitable with an online forum- emails, messages, small children pulling at your shins for biscuits- all these mean that within even just a minute, an attendee May get lost if I were to accompany my ponderings with a busy slideshow, veering backward and forward through it in an attempt to provide clarity, but actually making matters rather more confusing.

There is also the difficulty of split attention, if we display slides with words, which three differ to the words coming out of our mouths. All too well, we have watched children we teach almost at the point of spontaneous combustion when faced with the task of listening to our spoken word, or reading the words of the screen.

For this reason, I use a series of simple images to conceptually convey my key idea. It means that if I do meander, I will return to the overarching idea that I started with. It also ensures that if I do get keyboard frantic with shifting between slides, then it isn’t cognitively demanding for those listening. Abstract metaphor is a really fantastic tool here- my favourites are growth through nature; objects for emotional symbolism; or literal close up. Avoidance of an over stretched metaphor helps to keep the key focus- your speaking.

Thinking points

After also attending a great deal of CPD myself during lockdown, I would often look down after my notes at the end of a sixty minute session and wonder what on Earth any of it was meant to mean, or how I would begin to use it. I started to distil these into a series of one slide summaries ( I shared these here) which helped me to consider the key messages from sessions, but I often didn’t take away everything I could have from some of the sessions I attended. I found myself re-watching segments of live event recordings to focus on areas that I had not fully thought about in my original notes in a bid to understand or contemplate the idea a little more.

What would have benefitted, and what I now make a habit of doing when I communicate a complex idea or even an outline that might carry tension within the argument of the session, the question we are all thinking about- is to pose key questions as pause points for those attending to consider. I provide thirty seconds or so as silent thinking time, during which time, those present can collect their thoughts, finish up on notes, prioritise their takeaway summaries maybe, before we explore the next area of discussion. To begin with, it felt like the most uncomfortable thing on the planet! However, I find during that time, those that haven’t interacted using the chat facility or perhaps don’t want to partake in the cold call questioning that makes us all think back with a level of suitably British discomfort to the role-playing, ice breaking CPD sessions of yesteryear, will then have the opportunity to share ideas via chat that then gives me an opportunity to respond or use their thoughts to springboard into our next area of focus, or even just take the time to note down questions and ensure I return to them at the end of the session. Replicating the interactive nature of a discussion group in this way requires the time and space to think about what has been said, think about our own lens in respect to it and how it may look currently within our own contexts.

Keep the conversation going

Another aspect of online CPD that can be frustrating is the momentary nature of it- whilst live sessions will capture this collective sense of intellectual thinking, there can be a sense of disconnect if we perhaps don’t consider how to keep such valuable conversations going to ensure this ongoing collaborative thread of what has been shared or discussed. I would sometimes go away brimming with ideas but not have anyone to share them with, or, I would seek to attend events where I knew others going along, so we could reflect on the ideas afterwards.

Finding a way to continue the conversation can be really powerful for online CPD, and there are several ways to enable this. I always provide both my email and Twitter handle to those attending any CPD that I deliver, in a bid to open up not just the instant communication of the chat box, but also those discussions that you think of at a later point and wish you had had the chance to have. It may be that you instigate continued discussion through the use of a hashtag if the event has been promoted via Twitter- or creating one as a way of those that attend finding one another- or it may be that a central space is set up, particularly if you are running in-house CPD for your school setting- to allow those all important post-CPD discussions to take place. At faculty level, our English faculty have used Microsoft Teams to do so, splitting our CPD time between the session itself and group discussions afterwards, followed by a summary on our CPD Teams group so others can read how to implement ideas or discuss strategy with others.

If delivering external CPD, evaluation of your approach is a key way of continuing discussions to inform not only the content of your session, but explicitly asking questions around how the session seems well designed for an online context. This allows those that attend or those coordinating to consider how they might create spaces for reflection discussions at a later point.

Whilst online CPD was and continues to be so welcomed at this time, it is crucial that we think about how we can break down the barriers that it presents to us in terms of what we know about effective, collaborative professional development. It is delightful to be able to deliver sessions of this nature, and speak to teachers hundreds of miles away- if not sometimes surreal!- and I am continually curious as to how I can make it an experience that is still authentic to that sense of community- until we get our tote bag collections back on track.

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