I recently took a socially-distanced evening stroll with a former student. I’ll call him Jordan. I met him near the Hackney Marshes Centre, a tall, square building that cast a long shadow over the football and rugby pitches nearby. He strode towards me, grinning: 6’4”, athletic, sporting a grey hoodie with the letters ‘NUFC’, the university football team of which he was captain last season.
I was his form tutor during my first year as a trainee teacher, when he was a shorter, skinnier 14-year-old. That year, I took him and a couple of his friends to see the trading floor at Barclays in Canary Wharf, where I’d worked until the year before. Now 21, he’s just finished a degree in economics at Nottingham, and is preparing to start an internship at the American investment banking firm, Citi.
At sixth form, I taught him AS Level Physics; badly, in hindsight. We laughed about it on our walk. We once spent a whole week trying to solve a problem I’d been given when I went for interview at Cambridge, because I thought it would be good for the class to collaborate and build some ‘resilience’. He’s a bright student, but, unsurprisingly, given my teaching methods, never really got his head around physics. He scored a C grade in his AS Level exams and dropped the subject at the end of the year. I’ve felt guilty about it ever since.
Since those days, I’ve learned a lot about teaching. How students learn best if you introduce things in small steps, allowing them plenty of time to practise before moving on. The importance of ‘retrieval’: regular quizzing that helps students store more information in their long-term memory, thus avoiding so-called ‘cognitive load’. The method of breaking down and ‘modelling’ my own thought processes, giving students steps to follow as they attempt to solve problems for themselves.
I’ve been putting these principles to good use during the lockdown period, as teaching has migrated online. Theories of instruction, like the ones above, are well suited to lessons delivered within an internet browser rather than a classroom. Shifts in educational thinking during recent years have tended towards such models, which means that for many teachers the switch to online teaching has been less a radical departure and more a logical next step.
Since schools closed in late March, teachers have adopted various means in order to continue educating their students. Three of the most popular platforms have been Zoom, Loom and Google Classroom. My school uses the latter two. We follow a scaled-back timetable, teachers from each subject uploading lessons and answering students’ questions during their slots. Each lesson consists of slides prepared by the teacher, who talks through them in a pre-recorded video.
The videos follow a consistent structure. Each lesson begins with a review of previous learning; a short quiz of the kind described above. This is followed by some teacher ‘exposition’, i.e. presenting new information. This may come in the form of text, which the students are asked to read; a picture, which the students look at while the teacher talks around it; or a diagram which the students copy into their books while the teacher draws. This last technique is called ‘dual-coding’, an idea based on research from cognitive psychology that found students remember information more effectively if it is presented in different forms (in this case, text and diagram).
Once the exposition phase is complete, students are asked to complete comprehension questions, designed to check students have understood the information correctly. Afterwards, they mark their answers by comparing them to those presented by the teacher. They always use a green pen. Finally, they complete a short multiple choice quiz, which the teacher can then use to determine which concepts have been understood and which need teaching further.
Our training during the lockdown has been exclusively focused on improving our online pedagogy. Teaching is already a jargon-heavy profession, and since March we’ve added a host of new terms to our vernacular. ‘Chunking’, whereby concepts are broken down into smaller units, is doubly important when the teacher is not present to answer student questions directly. ‘Economy of language’ has been a big focus: removing the habits and patterns of conversation from our speech to ensure that what we say consists solely of explanations and instructions. (Writing scripts has proved to be a useful tool in this regard.) Finally, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ‘pause points’: moments in the video at which the teacher tells her students to press pause while they answer a question or complete a task.
An example that we were shown during a training session is a clip taken from a science lesson on collision theory. Here is a brief excerpt:
“Today, we are looking at collision theory. Collision theory tells us about the conditions required for a chemical reaction.
Here are two particles.
[Teacher points at two circles drawn on paper.]
These particles are moving, because all particles are always moving.
[Teacher draws arrows from the circles, to indicate motion of particles.]
If these particles come into contact with each other, it’s called a collision.
[Teacher draws small lines at the point where the arrows meet.]
Pause the video now, and write down, ‘what is it called when particles come into contact with each other?’
You should have written that it’s called a collision.”
This style of teaching has been relatively easy to adapt to, in my school at least. Video teaching is a continuation of many of the current trends in educational theory and practice; somewhat paradoxically, this is often described as a ‘traditional’ approach. Our teaching and learning policy is largely based on the insights of Barak Rosenshine, an American psychologist whose nine page ‘Principles of Instruction’ article, published in American Educator magazine in 2012, is something of a canonical text for a new breed of teachers and academics. Accordingly, much of our staff training is based on Rosenshine’s work, as well as that of Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like A Champion (usually referred to as TLAC, pronounced ‘Tee-Lack’).
‘Principles of Instruction’ is the educational equivalent of Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-five Theses’, pinned to the door of prevailing educational wisdom and kickstarting a reformation in teaching methodology that is now codified in Ofsted’s guidance for inspecting schools. Many schools, like mine, have embraced this new era wholeheartedly, but there has been plenty of resistance too. Advocates of progressive education, also known as inquiry-based or ‘discovery’ learning and roughly characterised by the phrase ‘finding out is better than being told’, have frequently raised concerns around such methods, arguing that they posit students as passive receptacles rather than ‘active learners’.
(To understand the difference between the style of teaching influenced by Rosenshine and a more ‘progressive’ approach, it’s useful to compare the video transcribed above with a pack of resources sent out to students in another East London school during the lockdown. One printed sheet is entitled: Design your own country competition. Under a sub-heading, ‘Task’, students are told: ‘You have been given the opportunity to create your own country, including a name and flag. You have the ability to be as creative as you like!’ A list of questions, divided into three sections (geography, history and religious studies), gives students suggestions about what they could include. ‘What does your Parliament building look like? Have you got any specific laws for your country? How has fashion changed over time?’)
Progressive concerns were heightened early on in the lockdown period, upon the launch of an online learning platform, part sponsored by the Department for Education, called Oak National Academy. Produced pro-bono by a group of teachers over the Easter holidays, the website aimed to provide a comprehensive, free resource for children whose schools were not, for various reasons, offering online learning programmes to their students. Based on the same principles and using a similar format to our video lessons, the site has proved remarkably popular, with over two million lessons viewed in the first week alone.
Progressive critiques of Oak National have tended to follow three main lines of argument. Firstly, that making online resources available is likely to widen inequalities, given students have unequal access to bandwidth, devices and parental support. Secondly, that public funds have been allocated to a website set up by teachers largely drawn from one side of the traditional-progressive ideological debate. Thirdly, to quote John Yandell, an academic at UCL’s Institute of Education, whose blog about Oak National attracted an enormous amount of ire from the website’s many supporters, that ‘online teaching tends to be a poor substitute for the real thing. Teaching and learning are embodied, irreducibly social activities.’
Whatever the rights and wrongs of these critiques, Oak National certainly filled a gap when schools closed in March. The interesting question is: what happens next? As in many other spheres of life, it’s hard to imagine schooling going completely ‘back to normal’ once the crisis is over. Teachers and students will return to classrooms in September, but the influence of online pedagogy will surely remain. Many school leaders, and indeed politicians, would welcome a shift towards scripted lessons: all following the same structure, all designed to reduce cognitive load to a minimum. Such a move would ensure a degree of consistency and quality assurance that would have been impossible to achieve before the crisis. It would certainly rule out geography teachers asking students to create their own flags.
It’s entirely plausible that schools lacking in subject specialists, (maths and science teachers, for example), might one day opt to eschew classroom teaching altogether, at least in shortage areas. In an era in which the recruitment and retention of teachers makes for a constant struggle, school leaders could hardly be blamed for turning to resources like Oak National Academy. And who’s to say it would not be better to have rows of children staring at their laptops in silence — pausing the video when instructed, marking their answers using green pens, completing their multiple-choice quizzes — than making hell for a teacher lacking in confidence or qualifications? They would certainly get better exam results.
As dystopian as this might sound, we’ve been moving towards this model for some time. As a head of department, most of my day is spent overseeing the preparation of a centralised bank of lessons, all of which take into account Rosenshine’s principles and the techniques of Doug Lemov. The increased use of scripting, chunking, economy of language, and pause points during the lockdown has been an evolutionary step rather than a revolutionary shift. The boundaries between classroom and online practice are already blurred.
Teaching has changed a lot since the days when I would chuck my students a difficult problem and we’d try to solve it together. Later in our walk, as we made our way back towards the Marshes Centre, I asked Jordan for his opinion on the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and his own experiences of racism in the UK (he’s black). He told me about the times he’d been searched upon entering a nightclub, while his white friends were allowed to walk straight through; about the difficulties he’d had when he first joined the university football team, because his playing style ‘didn’t fit the coach’s vision’; about his frustration when he hears people saying things like ‘white lives matter’ or ‘all lives matter’, because they fail to understand the very particular problems faced by black men and women in the UK.
I asked him how he thought I should act, as a white, middle class, male teacher, teaching in a diverse borough in East London. What should I do to avoid falling into the same traps of naivety and unconscious bias that had so frustrated him in others? He paused for a while, reflecting on the relationship we’d had when he was still at school.
“I don’t think you need to worry,” he eventually told me. “It wasn’t about anything you did or didn’t do specifically. It was more the fact that you took an interest in us. You made us feel valued in a way that it felt like society didn’t, because of the colour of our skin.”
This has stuck with me. I have little time to organise trips any more, certainly not trips for just three students. Since teaching Jordan AS Level Physics, I’ve focused obsessively on improving my teaching practice, so capable students like him would not come out of their exams feeling disappointed. And yet, seeing him now, grown up, confident, excited about the future, I wonder whether I’ve forgotten something. Do my current students feel valued to the same extent? Do I still take an interest in them?
In June, the Education Endowment Foundation reported that ‘school closures are likely to reverse progress made to narrow the gap in the last decade.’ This chimes with my own experience: as I sit in front of my laptop every day, repeating the words ‘pause now’ until they lose all meaning, I know that many of my students won’t even bother to watch the video. This begs the question: what is this gap, if it can widen so quickly? I’m not sure it’s got much to do with cognitive load theory. I may have become a better instructor since I taught Jordan, but a better teacher? That question has certainly given me pause for thought.