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What have we learned from learning remotely?


How are SGS pupils finding remote learning? An anonymous pupil survey just before half-term sought to answer this important question.

The outcome was that the SGS teachers have been doing a great job. We have tweaked a few things, of course, over the last few weeks but the pupils were overwhelmingly positive about their continuing academic progress. Equally, all the pupils know that remote learning is but a pale imitation of real school; even teenagers who in normal times would have professed indifference or even dislike towards school are looking forward to ‘the return’. What has remote learning taught us about school?

Community is important

Pupils learn together. The discussions and interactions that occur in a classroom, whether stemming from teacher questioning or from pair conversations, play an important part in allowing the pupils to test and develop their understanding and opinions. Google Jams and break out Meets are better than nothing but just don’t quite match this. Even more importantly the social side of school is crucial for the well-being and development of teenagers. A video call can’t really compare with a chat with your friends between lessons or a catch-up over lunch.

Classrooms are important

A video-call cannot reproduce the speedy and rich interactions that take place naturally in a classroom. A simple look around the room is often enough for the teacher to tell whether pupils have understood something, encourage the recalcitrant to keep concentrating and inject some pace into the lesson. In a virtual classroom the paraphernalia of hands up, chat-boxes or unmuting, answering and then re-muting (to prevent the howl of feedback) is a much more ponderous business. For many subjects, practical activities using specialist facilities are crucial to developing understanding as well as providing variety. Enormous ingenuity has been expended in trying to find home alternatives to classroom experiments but often we have had to resort to teacher demonstrations or simulations with the pupils simply recording the results or watching passively.

Feedback is important

Giving feedback is one of the most important things that teachers do. Feedback clarifies misunderstandings, sets targets for future improvements and motivates the pupil. Whilst teachers have valiantly marked work on-line and typed individual comments it is cumbersome compared to exchanging a few words with a pupil during a lesson, scrawling a well-chosen phrase in a book or pulling together a summary of a few minutes of discussion.

Structure is important

Going to school creates a rhythm for the day. A Form Tutor check-in and using the normal timetable for lessons helps but doesn’t quite have the motivating effect of donning the blazer or arriving at the start of period 1. I also worry about the erosion of the boundary between school and home – I have been fortunate to be able to work in school most days and I think that has given me a healthier work / life balance than gazing into a screen at home. Despite regularly changing challenges in Sport, Dance, Maths and many more it is much harder to produce variety during remote learning leading pupils to complain that each day seems the same: ‘Groundhog Day’ for those familiar with the film.

Co-curricular is important

As well as being educationally valuable, co-curricular activities: sport, music, drama and many more are the fun stuff. Despite the valiant efforts of a number of departments, re-imagining a rugby or hockey practice or a Big Band rehearsal in the virtual world is an impossible challenge. I am pleased that the new guidance for schools has allowed us to relaunch much of the co-curricular programme from Monday 8 March.

Educational Technology (EdTech) has come a long way in the last few years and teachers and pupils have had to learn to use it at an accelerated rate during Covid. Some of the tips, tricks and tech will certainly transfer into the full-time repertoire of many teachers as physical school returns but there seems no appetite for it to replace a group of pupils with a teacher physically present in a specialist facility. Schools are about people and not buildings but we have learned that to be really effective schools need people together in buildings.