Recovery teaching – best bets

Our whole school INSET was more focused on operational matters than it has been for some years. As a teaching and learning team we are lucky at Durrington that we are generally given top billing for any INSET time, and I’ve got used to our hour or 90 minute slot on the first day. Understandably, this time was cut down substantially this year as we needed to help our staff understand staggered timings, hand washing and bubbles.

As a result we needed to make sure the messages we gave were as pared down and precise as possible, while still rooted in the best available evidence. Ultimately, despite all the operational messages, our core business remains what happens once our students are in the classroom and ready to learn.

What is clear is that it cannot just be business as usual this year. Lockdown has presented a number of specific challenges that our teaching needs to overcome. That is not to say we need to teach completely differently, but our emphasis needs to change. Areas of teaching have become more or less important due to students being away from us for 6 or 7 months. I tried to exemplify what I saw as the greatest challenge for our teachers with the following image:

Now, the complexity of having 25 to 30 different brains in the room that you are trying to engage with has always been one of the toughest challenges for teachers. However, the relative differences between them have never been starker. They may come in and sit down and look like a homogeneous class, but the differing experiences of those students during lockdown mean they are not equally equipped for your lesson despite what they might have in their pencil cases. You have the high attaining student who did every scrap of work asked of them and actually developed as a metacognitive and self-regulating learner during the summer months and is now ready to hit the ground running. You also have students, potentially disadvantaged students, who did no structured learning for the entirety of lockdown. And you have every variation in-between.

So what do we do about that?

The answer is the best we possibly can using the best bets provided by research evidence.

There is, as always, no one answer, no silver bullet, and we have produced a lengthy recovery teaching document giving teachers advice across a variety of aspects of teaching to help them with what to focus on this year. However on INSET we chose to focus on two key areas of teaching in the limited time we had. These were:

  1. Explanation
  2. Formative assessment

As a team we considered at length about what would be most useful to focus on, but ultimately we felt it was these two features of teaching that we wanted staff to zone in on as they thought about returning to the classroom.

I described them as the input and the output. Explanation is all about how we manage the input students receive whereas formative assessment is how we judge the output they give to assess the relative success of that input in causing learning.

The key messages around explanation were:

  • We cannot circulate the class speaking to groups or individuals as we normally would, so teaching from the front is going to be everyone’s default setting. However, do not worry about this, direct instruction has been proven by Professor Kirschner and others to be the best way for experts to help novices learn. Direct instruction is founded in explanation so let’s get ours right.
  • We learn in the context of what we already know, so prior knowledge is key to learning. The schemata (connected webs of information on a given topic stored in our long-term memories) of our students connected to what we are trying to teach them have in some cases been well maintained during lockdown and in other cases badly eroded. In order to overcome this we need to work the activate as much prior knowledge as possible before teaching new material. We can do this using strategies including:
    • Mindmaps (done from memory)
    • Questioning
    • Quizzes
    • Short teacher recaps (preferably using stories)
  • We need to consider cognitive load theory when planning our explanations. The germane load (the connection between the new material and what we already know) which we rely on to support our explanation in usual circumstances will not be present for many students so we need to work on reducing the extraneous load (distractions from the learning) as far as possible. We can do this through:
    • Chunking our explanations of complex ideas or procedures.
    • Using worked examples to support complex tasks.
    • Funneling attention towards our explanation.
    • Reducing redundant information from our explanations.
    • Limiting distractions.

The key messages around formative assessment were:

  • Consider the purpose of any assessment before planning it or enacting it. Formative assessment has the purpose of informing classroom decisions.
  • Consider the cost of the assessment before performing it. The costs will be the planning, the time taken to complete it and the time taken to mark it.
  • Consider whether the assessment will give you information you do not already have. If it won’t, don’t do it.
  • Ensure you do something with the results, if you don’t the assessment won’t be formative.
  • Let student “rustiness” wear off for a couple of weeks before starting up assessment.
  • Consider the following types of formative assessment for recovery teaching:
    • Diagnostic questions (designed to reveal what students do or do not know).
    • Multiple choice questions.
    • Low stakes quizzing.
    • Mini-whiteboards (these have been provided for students as part of their “packs”).

Having completed this section of the INSET, I was all too aware of how much information was being delivered that day and how much change was having to be absorbed. However, a consoling thought is how it is ultimately teaching that amongst so many questions can help provide some solid answers. There is a lot we cannot control at the moment, this part, we can.

Chris Runeckles is an assistant headteacher at Durrington High School.  He is also an assistant director of Durrington Research School and will be delivering our training on Metacognition and Memory

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