Sharing joy and knowledge from an ordinary life

On connection and learning in this strange world

Today, I was invited to be on a panel for FutureLearn’s Festival of Education. I sat alongside other ‘How to Teach Online‘ course mentors in the form of some extremely wise colleagues. Diana Laurillard, Simon Rofe, Mark Brown and Matt Jenner.

Imposter Syndrome hit hard and uncertain, after the event, that I’d expressed my points effectively, I returned to my notes in order to share my thoughts in a preferred medium. Here, I share my reflections on the five questions posed.

What would you recommend to an Early Career Teacher entering education at the moment?

Firstly, welcome to arguably the best profession in the world! Secondly, there’s a great deal I could share here about being new to teaching. I’ve chosen a few points to get you started.

This is a strange time to be entering the profession, granted, but entering almost any other profession right now probably wouldn’t feel representative of ‘normal’. This strange time presents a myriad of challenges to you as a new teacher but also numerous opportunities, especially related to your professional development.

If you’re entering a school as a newly qualified teacher or as part of an in-school training route, ask about any online CPD the school might be running at present. You may find the school you’re joining has made learning materials available online though a newsletter, reading club, research group, or perhaps a live or recorded webinar series. This might not be part of their offer ordinarily so join in if you can; it will give you a sense of what the school’s development approach and priorities are and you may get to meet some of your colleagues or at least get to know them through their work before you start in your new role.

There are other great sources of development at the moment, perhaps even more than usual made freely available online due to current circumstances. There are events including New Ed 2 coming up specifically for early career teachers. There are courses from FutureLearn, Coursera, Seneca and ResearchEd Home to name just a few.

The current context provides a pretty unique opportunity to gain an insight into a colleague’s teaching approach without all the logistical organisation usually required. In a recent webinar for the Chartered College of Teaching, colleague Katy Chedzey, recommended watching lessons to learn how another teacher communicates instructions, sets out routines, gives explanations, or designs assessment tasks. Watching other teachers in action can also develop your subject knowledge in areas you feel it is less secure. One place to go for learning inspiration is Oak National Academy where there are a range of teachers available to watch across phases and subjects. This is also a helpful activity to consider how you might structure your own online learning should the current context last into the new academic year.

The many avenues of professional development available to you might begin to feel overwhelming quite quickly. This article written for the Early Career Hub from the Chartered College of Teaching can be an approach you might choose to use in order to navigate your options so that your learning is focused and your time is spent meaningfully. Oh, and whilst I’m here, the Early Career Hub is packed with videos of classroom practice, articles and case studies designed to support your development as a new teacher. Membership is free for student teachers and half-price for NQTs.

Oh, and the rest of that ‘how to teach online’ part of your new role – well, there are some courses to support with that, your school should have established way of working you can follow until you find your feet and the education community over on Twitter are immensely generous, with a weekly online EdTech themed series from Mark Anderson and Bukky Yusuf I’d recommend.

Diana added during the event that enrolling in an online course someone else has created can help you to think about structure, activities and design, as well as giving you the opportunity to reflect on what it’s like to learn online so that you might understand the experiences of your students.

How can we develop authentic connection with online students?

When I was teaching, these authentic connections came only after a long first term where I had established through consistency and routines, as well as getting to know my learners individually. Personally, I’ve never seen this process as anything more than gradual and so it’s important not to expect online connections to be formed any faster.

I think consistency and routines are as important online as they are in the face-to-face world. We humans are creatures of habit and if there’s one thing an educator can be counted on to provide for their students right now, it’s a safe and stable environment, internet connection permitting. If you’re teaching live lessons or even sharing recordings then you may find Doug Lemov’s blog interesting. He analyses videos of online teaching practice to examine how a teacher has structured their online lesson and how they’re beginning to establish consistent ‘ways of working’ in this digital world. Take some time to consider how you want pupils to interact with you, with one another. How do you want them to arrive at their online learning, how will they leave it? The clearer a teacher can make their expectations of students, the safer students will begin to feel in these largely uncharted waters.

On the How to Teach Online course I was a mentor on, it was interesting to hear how educators were bringing themselves to their online classrooms and asking pupils to also. Inviting students to share an object from their home that held importance to them, or asking students and parents to post examples of their work online via a tool like Padlet or Flipgrid for the whole learning community to see.

Something I’ve learned about forming genuine connections from attending online CPD recently has been in observing how the speakers invite the audience into their world a little, hinting at who they are in order to form that connection. It was great, for instance, to hear about Thomas Guskey’s desk that used to belong to his grandfather. Immediately, there was some warmth before we got down to learning together.

I have also learned how to immediately alienate an adult audience by talking about something that isn’t common to  everyone in attendance that can easily lead to exclusion and isolation: alcohol, football, TV or music. A podcast episode from Angela Browne helped me to be mindful of this for my own interactions with others to ensure I was being as inclusive as I could be. Whilst this relates to adult interactions, I’m certain similar principles may apply to teaching younger students too.

I wrote recently about how I was seeking for teachers to engage in meaningful asynchronous dialogue with one another. The challenges and opportunities in this space of authentic connection don’t solely belong to interactions with younger pupils.

Simon spoke of recognising students’ isolation and disconnection rather than allowing it to sit there, unnoticed and unaddressed. Mark spoke of designing for connection, of showing empathy, being relational, of cultivating and crafting your teacher presence.

What does learning together mean for you (your organisation)?

There’s a phrase common in teacher development circles and conversations that I think is helpful in this context – ‘reciprocal vulnerability’. I’m unsure of the origin of this phrase so apologies for the lack of reference.

This is a vital element in teacher learning, where trust is essential for everyone to feel open enough to sharing genuine experiences with one another, being honest about challenges and possible solutions. This climate means that everyone feels safe to experiment and ‘have a go’ because no-one is sat on the sidelines claiming to know everything. We’re all in the learning collectively.

I’m not certain it works as well for teachers and their students as it does for teachers learning together but there is perhaps one application. It might be useful, especially if you are running a live lesson, to share that you’re not sure how it will go, that you hope the internet holds out, that you hope your own children doing schoolwork in the room next door don’t interrupt. As well as being human, these admissions can leave us free to experiment and have a go without all of the pressure of being ‘perfect’.

Mark referenced that the origins of ‘learning together’ were perhaps UNESCO’s pillars of learning to live together.

What should assessment in a post-COVID-19 world look like?

Summative assessments in the forms of high stakes exams certainly attract their critics but I struggle to conceive a suitable system that is effective on all fronts, addressing purpose, reliability, validity and bias. However, I’m no assessment expert so my answer is unlikely to extend much further on this aspect.

I do think that one of the ways in which digital technologies can be really powerful is in supporting teacher assessment. Assessment for learning, the formative kind, is all about making pupils’ learning visible. This isn’t easy to do and often what a teacher might ‘see’ is performance rather than learning. Using online tools for assessment can help with making learning, or at least performance, visible. The immediacy with which the data is provided means that a teacher has a rich picture they can use for planning future learning for students to address areas of misconception and misunderstanding.

This video, from Harry Fletcher-Wood addresses a responsive teaching approach

There are some guides here about assessment and feedback online

How can we make this a pivotal moment and not just a blip?

My immediate reaction upon seeing this question is that the current context is, by many, seen in all of the positive ways – people spending more time at home with loved ones, people spending more time reading, learning, producing great things. This is the product of privilege. What of those numerous families whose students our schools serve who have lost their jobs, lost loved ones, risked their lives to get to work each day? Their experience will be that this time was a blip of the kind they wouldn’t wish to return to. Worrying about being able to feed their children, having to share out devices between siblings; frustration at their internet connection failing them yet again. There are many ways in which the recent digital experiment has been less than ideal. An article included by FutureLearn on the ‘How to Teach Online’ course reminded me that we are educating in a climate of crisis, not replicating the best of what online learning might have to offer us and so I’m generally of the view that recent weeks shouldn’t be used as a measure of what’s possible in more ‘normal’ circumstances.

As soon as I heard my panel colleagues speaking of how Higher Education institutions were embracing digital technologies however, I felt heartened. This is absolutely as it should be for increasing access to learning at that level of study. But is that same level of ‘digital transformation’ a necessity for primary, secondary and special schools? I work in online learning and I am therefore inevitably invested and interested in the possibilities that education technologies present but I remain cautious of ‘transformation’ of any kind; adopting Neil Selwyn’s view that we should be sceptical, but not cynical about it.

I am however hopeful that recent events can present the possibility of transformation of a different kind. The education sector being recognised for its resilience, professionalism and ability to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances and guidance over recent months. Learning has taken place and schools have pivoted quickly; making decisions and ensuring their communities are catered for, as they are well accustomed to doing. I hope that these efforts can begin to be recognised to the extent that we see an increase in trust and respect along with a decrease in damaging accountability cultures.

There was an additional question posed during the event about how we support students to ‘catch-up’ who have been ‘left behind’. There are many ways in which this assumption can be questioned but Cat Scutt at the Chartered College of Teaching has put together a reading list on the subject that may be of interest.

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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