Teaching remotely.  Potential for the future?  

As schools return for the autumn term, Susan Elkin looks at how ‘lockdown learning’ has adapted and whether new methods learnt can be incorporated into teaching practices.

2020 has become the year in which innovation and technology has driven learning. There has been criticism of teachers who have allegedly sat at home and done little. The truth is that many good teachers have used digital platforms to keep in touch with their students and to keep everyday classes going. 

Most of us, most of the time, would regard on screen lessons as second best and born of expediency. But have we learned anything from months of school-free teaching which we might go on using?

“Definitely” says Elizabeth Smart who teaches in an independent junior school in the south east. “Form time, morning and afternoon, has worked much better. I’ve been able to give the children more individual attention and there’s less fuss.” 

Elizabeth’s school uses Microsoft Team Meetings because there were concerns about hackers getting into Zoom. Each child has a school email with which to log in. “The teacher controls the meeting so that the kids can’t hijack it”, says Elizabeth, explaining that she gives each child formal permission to be present. 

Throughout the school closure Elizabeth started a 45-minute lesson on the hour: 9.00, 10.00 and 11.00 and kept the school timetable running all week so that there was English, maths, science, geography, history and RS. “It worked well”, she says, “but we did no live teaching in the afternoons to make space for art and music. The only real problem, for us anyway, was PE.” She stresses that this was live teaching every day – not simply directing the children to websites.

“There were definite benefits, although the children and I both missed the social side. In future perhaps it might be possible to reduce class size by alternating home working with school.” Elizabeth continues, adding that it was for her, as for her pupils, a wonderful experience for learning new skills. “The children made up and shared some good quizzes for instance and the lack of commuting to, arriving at school, etc meant there was a great deal more teaching and a lot less ‘faffing’.”

Assemblies work very well on screen too. Is it really necessary to gather every child into a space quite as often as most schools do – which takes time and organisation – when you can do as Guy Holloway, Head Master of Hampton Court House School did throughout the term and a half his school was closed? Guy kept his community together by delivering a well thought out, imaginative assembly talk from his own home every day. Moreover, he shared these via the school’s website and made them public via social networking so that his assemblies – which became almost an art form in their own right – reached a far wider audience than they normally would. 

It meant, for example, that parents could share the assembly and engage with it. Elizabeth Smart commented on this too. “Working digitally with the children in their own homes means that you know the parents are nearby – or even sitting in on the lesson – so communication with them becomes seamless.” 

But surely you can’t teach drama digitally? Well, it would seem that with imagination and flair you can. Chesterton Community College auditioned its students for a summer production of Henry V just before lockdown. As things turned out it was, as director Suzy Marston, says a case of “this [a digital undertaking] or nothing”.

Fifty Chesterton Community College students worked in their own homes via Zoom eventually putting together a startlingly good production: a blend of newly scripted scenes and Shakespeare. And there was live music composed and performed by the students. The final show, which aired live on 20 July to great acclaim was a mixture of live and filmed scenes. What an achievement and the learning from working in this way is bound to inform future drama activities.

Stratford Girls’ Grammar School at Shottery, near Stratford-upon-Avon has meanwhile had its Year 12 drama students writing their own plays and performing them individually at home to fulfil part of their A level syllabus. Another strategy to add to the departments range of work methods for the future, presumably?

No one would ever want to see screen learning and interaction – whatever form it takes – becoming a long-term substitute for face to face teaching. But there is no doubt that, if we’ve learned nothing else during this difficult year, we know that we now have a wider range of workable techniques than we’ve ever had before.

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