What remote learning has taught us about: explanation

Time is not what it was. It seems to stretch and contract in an unusual and confusing manner these days. However, what is plain is that we are fast approaching the rather unwelcome anniversary of when we were all first plunged into remote learning.

To mark this moment of dubious renown, we at Durrington are going to write a series of blogs connected to our six principles (challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning for the uninitiated) which will aim to pull some good from this annus horribilis.

During the turmoil, we have all been forced into adapting our practice to fit the reality we have been confronted with. We certainly wouldn’t have chosen this, but within the enforced change, will be gems that are worth harvesting and keeping once schools look more like the institutions they did roughly a year ago. Some things we didn’t do before will simply be kept, and in other places we will merge the old and the new to create updated versions of practice. For example, homework is likely to look quite different going forward due to familiarity with the best remote learning platforms, while student self-regulation will be in a different, and potentially better, place than it was.

To give some shape to this, each of our six principle blogs will be split into three sections: what we have tried, what we have learned, what we will keep. This first blog will tackle explanation, the teacher’s best friend and greatest tool.

It was a source of some anxiety when remote learning started that without the nuance of the classroom our capacity to deliver effective explanations would be severely diminished. In reaction to this, much of the work we have done around making remote learning effective has been about explanation and how to manage it online. Breaking it down from what we do day-to-day, and then building it back up to work online, has certainly crystalized what is important for successful explanation.

What we have tried:

  • Recorded explanations of difficult concepts delivered as short videos.
  • Longer recorded instructional explanation videos explaining how to navigate a lesson.
  • Whole recorded lessons with explanations of concepts, combined with instructions and modelling.
  • Live explanations when teaching live lessons.
  • Using explanations provided by other teachers (some colleagues in our department, some from elsewhere such as Oak National Academy).
  • Recorded explanations as feedback where common misconceptions have been uncovered.
  • Metacognitive explanation of why tasks are being completed and what we as experts are thinking while delivering a particular skill.

What we have learned:

  • Some students prefer recorded explanations as they can pause and rewind the explanation. In a classroom explanation comes and goes. Now students can watch it until they get it.
  • We knew this already, but prior knowledge makes or breaks explanation. It is harder to ascertain prior knowledge at a distance so we have to work harder to ensure we base our explanation in common knowledge. Also, activities that reveal existing knowledge are useful to complete prior to new explanation being shared.
  • Explanations must be chunked and then chunked again. Over time our remote explanations have become shorter and shorter in length before a pause is inserted. The cognitive load implications of listening to long instructional explanations have driven this.
  • Dual coding can be a great support for explanation. Lots of pieces of technology have been purchased allowing teachers to draw as they talk to support and shape their explanation.
  • Who is the best person to explain can vary. Certainly a direct connection with our students is important so at least some of the explanation coming from the class teacher has proved beneficial in our context. However, often a colleague is excellent in a particular area so drawing on their expertise has been very useful.
  • The potential for misconceptions being embedded during explanation is always present but is amplified at a distance. Even when explanations are clear and accurate a student may misinterpret them and therefore be left with an embedded misconception. Therefore, giving students an activity that requires them to use the explanation is useful in weeding these misconceptions out.
  • Metacognitive explanation is important punctuation in ensuring remote lessons do not become a series of activities to do rather than a coherent piece of learning.

What we will keep:

  • We now have an archive of teacher explanations. Where these will ultimately be used is yet to be seen but homework and of course snow days are obvious applications!
  • There will be times when a whole cohort of students would benefit from single teacher explanation. Without the physical constraints of the classroom we have been able to use teachers to explain concepts to large numbers of students all at once. You can now imagine a remote revision session where the teacher who is best at explaining that particular concept takes responsibility for the session, rather than clusters of students being with different teachers.
  • Checking whether our explanation has hit the mark. The unfamiliarity with remote learning has forced us to question whether our explanation is being understood. The need to check for misconceptions in a structured way will be worth incorporating when we are back.
  • Doing more metacognitive explanation to unpack our thinking in front of our students.
  • Explaining the procedures and not just the concepts. We have been at pains to add clear explanation of what students need to physically have, and physically do in order to navigate our online lessons. Bringing this into our lessons will help avoid exclamations of “I don’t know what to do.”

Chris Runeckles

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