What remote learning has taught us about: Challenge

In this, the sixth and final blog of the series, we will be examining the lessons learned from remote learning with regards to challenge. Effective challenge is, by its very nature, hard to pin down and must really be considered through the lens of an ethos or culture rather than as individual practical strategies. As such ensuring a high, but also appropriate level of challenge, in the remote class room required a careful degree of thought. While the return to class room will enable staff to re-set the ethos of challenge through face to face teaching, there are also several approaches developed during the lockdown that we should not just abandon


What we have tried:

When thinking about challenge I regularly return to Professor Robert Coe’s questions regarding “the number of minutes at students spends thinking really hard”, “whether we really want our students to be stuck” and “whether or not our students would really care if they knew the right answer but not why”. These questions frame a significant amount of the work we do in relation to challenge at Durrington in more normal times and seem to have done so during the period of remote learning as well.

  • Teachers have explicitly stated in pre-recorded videos (i.e. looms) and live lessons when they expect students to “think really hard” about a concept or question such as the hinge question(s) for that lesson. Our Geography department used a series of icons embedded into their PowerPoints to explicitly guide students to spend “X amount” of minutes thinking about the content of that slide before moving on and answering the question posed.
  • Teachers have gone to extra lengths to assure students that it is “okay to be stuck” – for many of our students being stuck is perceived as failing and can result in them giving up. In response to this, in pre-recorded and live lessons, staff have explicitly discussed the benefits and normality of getting “stuck”. Such discussion can be particularly beneficial for our highest attaining students who may have spent much of their school journey in the “comfort zone” and as such are not used to struggling.
  • Asking “why is that correct?” – the knowledge that students could easily be “googling” answers has put greater emphasis on these follow up questions, asking students to justify their responses and explain why they are correct.
  • Chunked learning – one of biggest changes between the two periods of remote learning was teacher’s realisation of the need for greater chunking, especially with complex concepts, for remote learning to be successful. As such difficult concepts were taught more slowly and understanding of these carefully checked before moving on.
  • Prioritising learning over performance – with the confines of the 1-hour lesson within 4 walls having temporarily disappeared, combined with the growing realisation that less is perhaps more in regards to remote learning, there seemed to be an increasing focus on how to revisit and revise previous material, meaning that learning took place over several lessons rather than just one.
  • Maintaining high expectations of language and vocabulary through explicit teaching of tier 2/3 vocabulary and giving students the opportunity to engage with disciplinary texts.
  • Topic experts within subjects have recorded lessons for whole year groups, meaning that the subject knowledge of the teacher is second to none, allowing them to ask more challenging questions. Staff have been able to watch these videos to improve their own subject knowledge.
  • Setting and promoting the benchmark – through social media channels and the Google Classroom streams we have been perhaps even better placed than normal to share both worked and students’ examples of outstanding work. Our Art Department for example had a regular “Lunch time” gallery where students remote work was displayed on social media and also used an App that showed how the work would look if it was hung on designer living room walls.

What we have learned:

The difficulty of creating an ethos of challenge was perhaps made even clearer during the period of remote learning, however remote learning has served to re-emphasise some of the core principles we need to keep returning to when thinking about challenge:

  • Avoid the bombardment technique – challenge is not effectively created by simply throwing multiple sources of information at students. This will only serve to panic and overload students causing them to disengage.
  • Showing students the very best examples of work produced by their peers, and then breaking it down to explicitly show how this has been achieved is of fundamental importance.
  • Asking students why an answer is as important, if not more so, than the students actually giving you the correct answer. Not only does this give you a greater understanding of their learning it also creates a high level of expectation and challenge in the room.
  • Multiple choice questions can be very challenging as long as careful thought and planning is given to the quality of the distractors in the answers.
  • That the need for complex tasks and concepts to be broken down into smaller chunks, is unsurprisingly vital in maintaining student engagement in challenging tasks.

What we will keep:

  • Expert teacher videos to support the subject knowledge development of other staff. For example, our Head of Social and Moral Education, Harriet Peach, has already begun using pre-existing or new looms, to explain the knowledge and model to her wider team how she would teach complex issues such as unhealthy relationships and sexual exploitation. As such staff’s base knowledge should be more secure enabling them to challenge students more with their questioning in lessons.
  • High quality and challenging multiple-choice questions.
  • A focus on “the why is that correct” aspect of questioning, re-enforcing the need for students to care about this aspect of their knowledge.
  • The increased frequency of re-visiting and assessing previously taught material to prioritise learning over performance.
  • Using subject meetings to really focus on what students need to be presented with to make them think hard so that we avoid over loading them with multiple sources of information.
  • Explicitly guiding student to think hard when confronting them with challenging topics/questions and normalising “being stuck” so that students see this as part of the learning process.
  • Using videos and social media platforms in lessons, form time and out of school hours to share examples of excellence and create a culture of high aspirations and challenge.

Ben Crockett

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