Principal’s Round-up – 24th April 2020

Listening to the daily briefings from the government makes me feel like I’m living in some strange  Orwellian novel, with the same mantra being delivered alongside misleading data sets and mixed messages. Once again this week we have seen more unhelpful speculation from ‘anonymous sources’ regarding the formal ‘reopening’ of schools. It is quite irresponsible to start announcing anything at all whilst we are still trying to cope with the high transmission rates and lockdown is in place in the country. It is causing confusion and unnecessary panic. Paul Whiteman from the NAHT summed it up well when he wrote this week:

“The current frenzy of speculation about schools clearly comes from people outside the education arena, demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of schools and the education context. A return to school is not a matter for debate; it is a question for science. Schools stepped up immediately alongside other public services in response to this crisis, not through compulsion, but through a determination to play their part. Instructing school leaders and their teams to return without including them in the planning stages or sharing proper safety arrangements would be extremely reckless.”

So, we do not have a date when schools will reopen and of course we must only ever respond when the Government’s 5 important tests have been met. When the time comes, any plans to return need to be properly thought through and consulted upon. The government cannot expect to ‘flick a switch’; there is a long list of practical and logistical considerations as well as the more fundamental safety questions, which I know, are all on our minds. The government must work with the profession to consider all of these. It’s not really about the WHEN at this stage but the HOW. It is not a chicken and egg question, it’s all about the egg. NHS workers have called to keep teachers and staff in schools safe. How we can control social distancing in our narrow corridors, or control the use of toilet cubicles, or manage groups walking to and from school is a mystery to me. Maybe they think we are guinea pigs – let’s open schools and see what happens?

It is also important to recognise that the continued use of the word ‘reopening’ overlooks the fact that thousands of schools have remained open for children of critical workers and for vulnerable students, including across the traditional holiday period. Contrary to some opinion that staff are at home doing very little, I would like to recognise and pay tribute to everyone who has worked tirelessly to set work, clean the site, supervise children on site, manage the myriad of issues and interpret the vague and foggy directives from above. By the time we do ‘open’, we shall be quite exhausted.

Despite what I have written above, we are obviously considering what it will be like and how we will manage when we start to take larger numbers of students back into school. I have been turning my attention to a medium term plan so we are ready to respond appropriately when we are asked to. I am constructing a plan which is being influenced by the NEU and NAHT guidance. When the draft is finished, I will circulate to everyone for consultation and then adapt it where I can. We of course will need to consider student resocialisation, but number 1 on the list is health and safety and effective risk assessment.

I have been on site most days. It is remarkable how disabling the isolation feels. We all work in an inherently sociable environment. For some, interacting with other people each day is the most rewarding part of the job. So the shift from classroom teaching to delivering lessons alone via video conferencing is one many of you will be struggling to adjust to. We are a community of people, but for now this has been taken away from us : we have lost the corridor conversations, the kind gestures that can make someone’s day, the face to face whines or giggles over the latest initiative to come our way.

So, what we must focus on is what is in our control right now. We are currently consulting parents about the quality, quantity and value of the work that they have been receiving. Paul Kirschner has produced some tips for effective teaching at a distance. It is helpful because I know that this is a period of time that is very challenging for parents and students as well as teachers. Whilst online education offers a solution, the adaptions that need to be brought about by the lack of face to face communication and explanation need to be thought through. Kirschner has provided a few simple pointers to help:

  1. Stick to the essentials.

Beware of offering too much new subject matter and possibly concentrate more on maintaining previously learned subject matter. A bit like extended retrieval practice. This advice is powerful and good to follow, because learning materials that you don’t repeat may be forgotten easily without rehearsal.

  1. Frame new subject material that you want students to learn in the bigger picture.

Clearly indicate what your students should learn and place this in a larger picture so that they have some context. Provide them with what Ausubel once called ideational scaffolding or anchor points that help them structure the new materials and direct their learning process.

  1. Refer to relevant prior knowledge students have and can look up.

The most important factor in learning new things is what you already know. Make sure your students know what specific prior knowledge is expected of them and where they can find it if it’s no longer in their heads. Where can they go if they no longer understand certain concepts, have forgotten formulas or if previously acquired skills no longer work?

  1. Communicate concrete goals and / or success criteria with the subject matter.

Obviously the goals and expectations that you have set are for you, as teacher, are clear. Students don’t always understand exactly what is expected of them and to what level they should master the material.

  1. Have students study a detailed example before starting the exercises.

One way to use examples effectively is to use worked-out examples. These are problems or exercises where the solution is completely worked out, step-by-step. Another type of example is a modelling example. You carry out the task yourself and during the solution process you constantly also tell why you do certain things

  1. Offer students support during practice.

Not everyone understands the content immediately. It’s important to realise this so that you have alternate routes and examples ready just in case. You must do your best to match the knowledge and skills of the students with what they need to learn. Use scaffolding to support students and decrease this as they better understand the material. This can be difficult given the current circumstances.

  1. Have students actively process the subject matter.

Studying the subject matter isn’t enough. Therefore, give your students assignments that activate the processing of the material. Have students elaborate (expand): Formulate questions that get them thinking. Think of questions about: What? Where? Who? When? Why? How? Here too, ensure that students can improve their answers

  1. Let students find out whether they have mastered the subject matter.

Have your students (after practicing) make a kind of “practice test” with which they can check whether they have mastered the learning materials. We know that retrieval practice leads to better learning and retention (than, for example, rereading the material), but also gives the student insight into whether she or he has really understood the material. The latter is important, because as a teacher you are not present with the student to check for their understanding

  1. Provide students with adequate feedback on what they have done.

It’s important that students receive feedback on their answers. This can be corrective (wrong: the answer is), but better is directive (wrong: you should have solved it that way) or epistemic (How did you get this? Was the answer different if you had taken into account …? You do not have to do this for all students, and certainly not on every task. However, some will certainly benefit from your feedback.

  1. Spread exercises over time.

If you are presenting new subject matter, don’t do it in one long session but use shorter sessions and return to it at one or more later moments. This is called the spacing effect. Research shows that it is much more effective to spread the practice over time.

In a nutshell:

  • Keep it short. “Try not to do all of what you normally do in your online class.”
  • Prepare well. “Know what you’re going to say, don’t change it during class.”
  • Provide structure. “List what students should do and see if they have done it.”
  • Prepare students. “If you are going to talk about something, prepare them beforehand with stimulating their prior knowledge.”
  • Give short assignments before and after and require them to be submitted to you. “Not complicated or profound, but things they can do in a few minutes and you can see whether they are prepared (before) and understand (after).”
  • Make use of the online resources available. “Don’t try to do something better in an evening that has already been done well by someone else.”

I hope that you all continue to remain realistic, strong and motivated. Take care of each other and try to enjoy the weekend.