Connecting in a contactless classroom

In my previous blog ‘Four Stages of Reimagining the Classroom’, I presented the fictional Hammerhill Academy’s English Department and their journey to setting up a virtual learning provision. Since then it would be fair to say that Hammerhill – like all real schools across the U.K – would have gone through a rapidly transformational voyage of virtual learning discovery. The most recent lockdown has moved so much further than its predecessor. In this iteration, the initial logistical considerations (step one and two of Hammerhill’s English department’s journey) had already been constructed and are ready to be replicated. When schools were open in the first term, the ongoing need for a hybrid learning model – which required lessons to be delivered simultaneously to those in the real classroom and those isolating at home – had slowly developed virtual learning pedagogies (step three of Hammerhill’s journey).  Lockdown 3.0 has accelerated this and very quickly many departments have moved towards the delivery of quality first English lessons which closely replicate the classroom experience of teaching and learning.  

So how has this accelerated development of virtual learning pedagogies happened and what does it look like when it is ‘first class’?  

In answer to the first part, schools have been sharing more than ever within and beyond their four walls what is working.  Twitter is awash with English teachers sharing their successes – and failures –  and asking for support with developing practice. It’s like everyone became an NQT all over again. At the same time, various studies conducted during the previous lockdown, were published – the EEF guidance for example – and shared best practice for remote learning. And so English teachers experimented.  

In answer to the second part, put simply it looks like it would look in a classroom. Teachers know where their students are in their learning during the lesson and, where students are not where they should be, they have put in place the support needed to move them on. 

One of the biggest issues has been a teacher’s ability to understand where their students are in their learning during a lesson. This is where the screen and the policies surrounding its safe use become a real barrier. The ability to look at a student’s work, talk to them about it and offer feedback to move them forward has become a time-consuming task.  In the real classroom, this might take up to 10 minutes – maybe less – but in the virtual classroom, accessing each piece of work from each student, and offering written feedback takes much longer.  Without a visual on a student – most schools have a camera off policy – students can be sitting and ‘waiting’ undetected for feedback and/or the next task. It’s clunky. In this set up, it is impossible to see all of the student work simultaneously and this can lead to students becoming disengaged in the lesson. 

Whiteboard.Fi and a single class PowerPoint slide deck are two excellent methods that have enabled teachers to know where their students are in their learning during the lesson.  Both involve gathering and formatively assessing student responses simultaneously. In Whiteboard.Fi, each student is assigned their own mini whiteboard where they are able to respond to questions posed by the teacher, the teacher has a ‘masterboard’ which shows them all of the students’ whiteboards. This technology can transform the clunky and slow process of teachers moving between each student’s individual work, instead allowing them to see the learning as it is happening. They are then able to provide immediate feedback, advice and encouragement. The single class PowerPoint slide deck works much like Whiteboard.Fi, students are assigned a slide each to work on independently. The teacher can scroll through the slides, again offering feedback, advice and encouragement. Both of these methods also support peer assessment and peer-to- peer learning as students can see each other’s work.  

In providing the necessary support for those who need it, the use of breakout or sub classrooms has become a useful tool for English teachers. One way of utilising this facility has been through departments merging two classes together to build capacity. This new class now has two teachers: one who is delivering the lesson and one who can now be used to provide tailored support for those students who need it. The support teacher can be used within the breakout rooms but also via the chat functions and other feedback functions to provide those students with identified needs a greater level of support.  

At the time of writing, these methods were some of the most effective choices being made in classrooms, but I have no doubt that by the time this is published, there will be something new to add to the ever-increasing virtual learning pedagogical armoury that our English teachers are discovering at a most rapid pace. Never has the profession undergone such a steep, sharp and significant learning curve, and never have we been more willing to experiment. Long may that continue. 

Rebecca Geoghegan is a secondary English teacher and former whole school Literacy Lead with 15 years experience of teaching KS3, GCSE and A Level.