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23 March 2021
By Zoe Enser

What Have We Learned in Education During the Pandemic?

This year has been tough. The expectations on teachers and students to get on with learning in the midst of a pandemic, with their personal concerns, difficulties and complications all pushed to one side to make way for the increasing workloads they have had to juggle. This has inevitably taken its toll. It will take some time to return to normality, although schools again have done amazing things to get back up and running as swiftly as possible.

However, one of the things I have seen, indeed something which teachers are exceptionally good at, has been adaption, flexibility, and reflection. As much as we want to return to the relatively normality of the classroom and forget about the events of the past year, it may be time soon (although possibly not until the Easter holidays), to consider what it is we have learnt about effective practice and which elements from this unprecedented time we want to take forward into our day to day practice.

1. Less is Sometimes More

One of things I have encouraged teachers to consider carefully is their choices as to what they are delivering and what elements from their curriculum are the most important elements. This has led greater interrogation of what is being delivered, when and why. Hinderland is a great to enrich, build, and consolidate understanding, but we need to be sure we have got the core clearly identified in order to do this well. Sometimes we can be keen to have lots of ‘things’ in our lessons, with various activities and information which can bombard the students. English after all can be as broad and diverse as we want to make it.

To make sure the most important things stock, many have stripped back some of the extra detail first, layering the information and activities slowly over time, and this can be a really good way to ensure students retained that information. In English I have seen an increase in low stakes quizzing and short answer responses which give teachers a much clearer understanding of what students know. It will be good to see if we can continue to replicate this in class before we rush back to full essays and extended writing every lesson.

2. Quality of Explanation is Key

When you can’t use body language in the same way as we do in class, or rely on students to quickly convey back to us what they understood and what they didn’t, the importance of quality of explanation becomes clear. Teachers during remote learning were finding ways to ensure they slowed down during recorded lessons and verbal instructions were reinforced with written or visual ones, with key points were reiterated throughout. There were some clear gains with this, and some teachers have found students were able to tackle tasks more effectively.

Teachers, partly due to suddenly realising the audience may be broader (yes, that is Carl’s dad hovering in the background), spent even more time considering their explanations, and trying to get it right first time. Without the wealth of feedback we rely on to be responsive in our classrooms, this was essential for remote learning. If we couple this with the first point about stripping things back a little, we may also find this is something we devote just a little more time to in our planning. This may continue to be even more essential when wearing a mask and still looking at a sea of partially covered faces too.

3. Some Tech Can Be Useful

People were delighting about how Jam Boards, Padlets, Google Docs, forms and whiteboards had really enriched the work they did in synchronous lessons. What these really provided were opportunities for formative assessment, checking full understanding, quick opportunities to intervene and collaboration. Even in the best classrooms it can be difficult to be certain you have had a full response from all and nobody snuck a peek at their neighbour or simply got missed due to the hustle and bustle of the room. The tech meant, as long as they were logging in, students had nowhere to hide. This meant that teachers were getting the kind of information from all they really needed.

Other tech like mote provided the opportunity to give quick verbal feedback on homework and Zoom and Teams made us realise that you don’t have to BE in the room where it happens to BE in the room where it happens.

Collaboration between different schools, phases and groups has also soared over the last year and I have worked with schools whose location would have simply made it difficult for us to meet face-to-face. I really hope this remains.

People have also taken control of aspects of their own CPD, watching a range of sessions from a huge range of providers and so many people, teachers and parents alike, are pleading for parents’ evenings to stay in the remote world. The stripped back and focused nature of these sessions have been a huge hit.

4. Teachers and School Staff are Incredible!

I said at the start that teachers are flexible, adaptable and always looking at how they can make the best of a bad situation or make a great situation even better. The speed at which people learnt about new tech, adapted their pedagogy, managed home responsibilities, and supported their students and colleagues to do the same, is nothing short of amazing. We need to keep that at the front of our minds as we hit the next raft of challenges. Schools are already COVID testing, planning on how they will provide accurate grades, supporting students to settle back into routines, and helping them to move forward with the learning which has already taken place.

I have reminded people time and again over the last year that great teaching is great teaching, regardless of the medium. That is not to say it hasn’t been hard though. It really has, but as the EEF rapid review of evidence, Ofsted visits and various other explorations into what we mean by effective provision shows that quality of the teaching trumps all. Remote practices, flexible approaches, and various other things we have encountered over the last year are great and we need to think about what we will take forward. However, most of all, keep on with the great teaching that you have always been known for.

Zoe Enser is the Specialist English Adviser for the Education People Secondary School Improvement Service.

If you would like more details about how Zoe can support you please get in touch with her via email, or visit our Secondary School Improvement page for more information.