In Lockdown 1.0, like every other school in the country, we moved to distance learning across the course of a weekend. As a department, we set work for students that we thought was appropriate and manageable, and tried to spend a lot of time calling the kids to check up on them in general and see how they were finding the work. As time went on, we started using some simple metrics to track how engaged students were with the work – how much was being submitted, what the scores were etc. These metrics weren’t all that pretty, and a lot of students were showing quite low engagement in science. This became more worrying when I compared our metrics to the same students’ engagement in their maths work, which was significantly higher than it was for us.

Why was this? Why was it that the same students were completing their maths work but not bothering with science?

At my school, we have a phrase called “looking in the mirror.” Broadly it translates to “if something didn’t go the way you wanted it to go, what can you do differently next time to increase the chances of it going the way you want it to go?” We apply it to a lot of things; teaching particular concepts, managing behaviour, having a parental conversation, steering a department meeting – whatever. The idea is to calmly and dispassionately rise above your ego and consider what you can do better, to not look to blame others or point to factors outside of your control, but to isolate the things that are within your power to do differently. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I get really crossed when I’m asked to look in the mirror, but then I calm down, consider the facts and plan for the future.

When it came to lockdown learning, my first instinct – as always – was to immediately jump to factors outside of my control. To say things like:

  • Parents prioritised maths and English, and allowed science and other subjects to fall at the wayside
  • Students did the same independent of parental involvement
  • The existence of purpose built online maths learning programs made maths learning easier
  • There were a greater number of maths teachers without children or other lockdown-dependents than there were in the science department, making it easier for them to chase students
  • There were two members of the senior leadership team in the maths department, giving them greater clout when calling home

And so on. The main idea here is that the points above might have been true, but there was very little I could do about them. They don’t help me going forwards.

I went back to the drawing board and had another think. I belatedly realised that the answer was obvious: the maths department had a better culture of learning than the science department had before lockdown started. Because of this, when lockdown then kicked in, it was easier for the maths teachers to get their students working than it was for us.

What do I mean by “culture of learning”?

  • Our maths department are pedagogically very strong, their teaching is innovative and highly effective (see here for more [it’s the best education podcast you’ll ever listen to]).
  • The department has been stable for a few years, with the staffing not changing all that much.
  • They have common routines and habits at a department level, and teach in a relatively consistent style.
  • The teachers know their students extremely well, and in most cases had taught them for a number of years running, and had nurtured relationships with parents throughout all that time.
  • They have an established homework program making use of Hegarty Maths and other online tools.

None of the above was the case with the science department. I joined in September 2019 (a few months before lockdown), and the year before there had been just three science teachers, one of whom only joined halfway through the year. A lot of classes had been taught by non-specialists, and the provision was fairly patchy. September was hard, but we worked together as a team and slowly things started to improve. However, when lockdown came along, we weren’t in a strong enough position to really carry the students over into it. We’d been gaining ground, but it wasn’t enough.

Looking in the mirror isn’t about dwelling on the past with a sense of despondency for what could have been, it’s about learning lessons so that things will be better next time. As such, there were a lot of things we did at a department and whole school level in September 2020 to ensure that if there were further disruptions to learning (and there were), we would be better prepared. Here, I will try and identify just a few of them that I think are relatively generalisable to other schools.

Independent practice

Lockdowns aside, something we were going to work on as a school was independent practice. We identified that lots of teachers were planning for students to have such practice, but the time which they had for that was often eaten up in checks for understanding and further explanations, by which time the lesson had finished and no time was left for independent practice.

This is a problem to start with; students need time to practise in order to consolidate new learning. The problem then became exacerbated during distance learning, where students had no experience of just sitting and working by themselves for long stretches. Each department was given the autonomy to respond in their own way, and as a department we decided that every class should have at least one period of time a week when students would sit and work quietly by themselves, without any teacher intervention.

Some of the things we did to ensure this would be a success:

  • Explained to students why we were doing it
  • Made it a focus of learning walks (the head of department [me] goes into lots of lessons)
  • Did a “book look” where as a department we just looked at the quality of independent practice that students were doing (specifically not looking at marking [which we don’t do], or making it about performance management or any such nonsense)
  • Made sure that extended practice sets were provided centrally to lower workload involved
  • Discussed practice sets at weekly department meetings to probe their level of challenge and if they were appropriate or if we needed to change things
  • Ensured that all aspects of our plan were constructed and executed collaboratively

When the next lockdown came along, our students were in a much better position. They understood the need to sit and work quietly, were used to doing so, knew what to do if they got stuck and by and large produced good quality work. As a department we were also far more expert at judging the difficulty of the work and making sure it was pitched correctly.

Modelling

Again regardless of Covid, as a school we were planning on improving our explanations and modelling. This is doubly important for distance learning, where students are more likely to give up if they don’t get something (see more below) and you have less information about whether they understood the explanation due to impaired facility to Check For Understanding. We have departmental autonomy, so different departments pursued this in different ways, but our improvement included:

  • Dedicated training sessions on how to explain stuff
  • Dedicated training sessions on technicalities of explaining stuff at a distance
  • “Homeworks” that we had to do involving us recording explanations
  • Feedback from colleagues about our homework explanations
  • Discussion at department level of examples of explanations and how we might improve them

You can see here or here for a bit more detail on that type of thing.

Another advantage of this early preparation is that we got into good routines giving and receiving feedback on the quality of our videos, which meant that once lockdown started, we were ready as a department to help each other deliver better explanations.

Homework generally

Distance learning is an extreme version of homework. It’s students working, at home. Homework. In general, homework is set by many, and completed by few. Though I don’t have any stats to support my beliefs here, my anecdotal evidence is that homework is generally rubbish (see more here). There are lots of reasons for this, but I think the main one relates to a couple of points made by the EEF in their homework toolkit here:

Students tend to not think about homework as something that’s particularly important. Often this is because it is unrelated to class work, or never checked or acknowledged by a teacher, or never reviewed in class or whatever. They think it is a part of schooling, but not necessarily a part of education – something they need to check off that they have done but not really learn from.

To be sure, on a purely logical level some of this doesn’t apply to distance learning, but the teenage mind is a complex beast, and I’m fairly confident that the paragraph above leads to certain habits of mind that are a bit bad in normal schooling, and absolutely awful when they carry over into distance learning. For example, I find that students give up on work much quicker at home than they do in class:

Sorry sir, I couldn’t finish the homework.

Why not?

Well, I didn’t understand question 3.

Right, but there were 20 questions, why didn’t you just move on?

Dunno sir, I didn’t understand it.

The above happens the whole time, and as a busy teacher with 200 students it’s difficult to really respond, as it requires time and thought to pry apart the key issue here, which is that in the student’s head, homework and classwork are two different things. One leads to learning, and the other is just there because it’s got to be there. If you don’t truly value something, if you don’t see just how important it is, then you’ll give up at the first hurdle.

We needed a way to break that gap; to tie the two together.

Homework: feedback and marking

It won’t surprise regular readers to hear that Carousel Learning formed the bedrock of our response to this issue. We think that Carousel helps us marry homework and classwork together better than any other route, but the points I am going to make below are generalisable, so don’t stop reading if you are (mad enough to be) not a Carousel user.

First, students need to know that you are checking their work – this is the baseline. For us, Carousel is pretty quick and easy to mark, taking about 5 minutes to mark 30 students’ responses to a 15 question quiz:

I might even display this in class, just to really ram home the message that I am reading it and that I care. We then take the responses that students found hardest and use those as a starter in the next lesson:
This really starts to bridge the gap between homework and classwork. If they do the homework properly, they start to do better in class. If they are lazy and just do it as quickly and check-boxy as they can, we’ll notice in class and give them a hard time.

We can also use the whole class feedback function to highlight particularly interesting questions, again communicating to students that we are marking their work, we care about their work and we are using it in class as part of their normal learning. More on that here:

During future lockdowns, we maintained this routine. Students did regular Carousel quizzes, and their answers and responses fed into the virtual lessons.

Homework: cheating

It’s normally pretty obvious to tell if students are cheating on their homework. What’s more interesting is why they do it: they think nobody will check, they think nobody would notice even if they checked, and they think that it doesn’t really matter. So, you need to prove them wrong. First, check. You’ll probably notice answers that look fishy, and then you can just plug into Google:

Shock horror, they cheated. Unless they’re the one who wrote the original article on the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, which seems unlikely.

Then, you need to call them out on it. We have a specific routine that we’ve worked out as a department for doing this, but you need to assume that cheating will happen and figure out the best way to tackle that in your context. By the time the second lockdown came along, we had already eliminated a good chunk of cheating from the homeworks. This meant that there was one hurdle which had been effectively tackled already, and again put us in a much stronger position to get quality learning out of the students.

Fix that roof

Improving resilience during independent practice, perfecting your explanations, eliminating cheating and driving up homework engagement is a lot easier when students are in school and you have the full range of consequences and accountability measures up your sleeve (you can’t really set a detention for students who are working from their bedroom [more’s the pity]). Getting our students into strong routines around Carousel or independent practice when they were in school meant that engagement remained high when they weren’t in school. We already had them in a good place, so the drop off was smaller and easier for us to manage. We fixed the roof while the sun was shining, and it made it easier once it started to rain. We didn’t quite catch up with the maths department, but when the second round of serious distance learning started we were much better prepared, and our students benefitted as a result.

These specific and focused interventions worked in tandem with more global improvements in the department. We worked together to improve as teachers and to build a better overall culture of learning in the students, and it made life easier once things went south.

Why did I write this blog?

When schools closed last January, Carousel saw a massive uptick in users as teachers moved to distance learning. Obviously, that was great – I want people to use Carousel – but I couldn’t help putting my head in my hands:

Guys this is too late! You can’t expect students and staff to magically be able to use a brand new platform and for it to all go swimmingly! That’s like trying to build a plane while it’s flying…

Whatever platform you are planning on using; be it Carousel, Seneca, Educake, Oak, Classroom, Teams – whatever – don’t leave it till too late. Introduce it this week. Get students to practise using it at home. Iron out all the kinks while you still have your students in school. Fix the roof while the sun is shining. The same applies for cover lessons. If you are planning on doing block cover, or Oak videos or whatever, make sure you’ve practised. Doing a dry run with your class will help the poor soul who has to cover them if you’re at home isolating.

I don’t know what the next term has in store for us. I desperately hope that everything will be fine, and school will continue as normal. I suspect though that there will be an increase in cover lessons, an increase in students doing block cover in the hall, an increase in students learning from home and an increase in schools who need to send entire year groups home. We must be prepared. I’m not saying you need to do the things that we did – not at all. We are one department with a very specific set of circumstances. But you do need to do something. You need to make sure that you use whatever time you have with the students in the building to prepare them for the worst case scenario: you need to fix the roof while the sun is shining. And it may not feel like it, but if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that having students in school – even if there’s Covid everywhere and masks and busy-ness and exhaustion and difficulties abound – with all that, compared to closures and distance learning, having the students in school counts as the sun shining, so you better get fixing that roof.


As ever, massive amounts of gratitude to my department and to my senior leadership team, who have been astonishingly supportive and adaptive.