What I've learnt from lockdown about the importance of rich learning conversations

How to replace homework with bridging work to keep the conversation going

Teachers and students crave meaningful conversations, but the demands of a typical school day rarely allow sufficient time. In truth, we need to talk about education in order to deliver it well. At times it feels like we’re racing against the content and the clock. Life is moving at a slower pace at the moment which allows time to make the best of lockdown learning, reflect on what matters, and what we might change:

Dialogue with colleagues - protecting it.

If you’d told me two months ago I’d been writing an ode to meetings I’d have been skeptical, to put it politely. I’m starting to think we just haven’t been doing it right. 

Since lockdown began we’ve kept many of our regular meetings. A normal school day is so frantic that these meetings are often rushed. I sometimes have one eye on my emails and the other on the clock. 

Meetings are like any other conversation, quality matters. Maybe now conversations feel more energised because our focus has narrowed; make sure our students are ok, provide high quality teaching, keep making sure they’re ok. The other stuff, behaviour incidents, admin and logistics had, until recent announcements, faded into insignificance. My hope is that when timetables are written for September 2020 we remember this; conversation is connection. If we want to deliver a thoughtful curriculum and an amazing experience for students we’re going to have to find time to talk about it.

Dialogue with students - Valuing it.

I miss the sound of school a lot. I miss it taking too long to get my year 11s off the discussion and onto the writing, I miss being let in on a joke at break duty or the fleeting cheers of respect from some year 9 boys when they see I can miraculously kick a ball. Most of all though, it’s the big talk of an English lesson. Getting to the end of Lord of the Flies and watching as Year 10s argue over humanity’s true nature or hearing raised voices debating which of the Macbeth’s is more to blame. I don’t think we can completely emulate this online but we might be able to do something else.  

In school I show I value students’ contributions by making room for them, praising them, folding their responses into models etc. That’s harder online. At the start of lockdown one of the things we often discussed was the fear of moving from dialogic to didactic teaching. As David Bankhurst puts it; “The interpersonal engagement between teacher and learner, mediated by mutual recognition, is central to the very nature of their transaction. To displace this is to undermine the humanity of the teacher-student relation.” (2020. p308) So we thought hard about how to keep talking in online lessons. I haven’t found a replacement but I have hit on a pretty good interim solution. The chat bar in google hangouts does something I can’t do in a lesson: it provides a record of the vast majority of student contributions. For various reasons, ranging from shyness to not having a quiet place to work, students prefer to type their ideas. I’ve read it after every lesson and started the next one using the students’ ideas. This can be a fairly silly game of ‘guess who said it’ or asking students to validate each other’s ideas using the text. I hope it shows students that I’m still listening.

Dialogue between lessons - Keeping it going.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a big fan of homework. I was very much a ‘copy someone else’s at lunch’ kind of student and as a teacher, it has tended to be an afterthought. Unsurprisingly, since I haven’t valued it much when I do set it, the result tends to be pretty mediocre and so the cycle repeats. Now, and for at least a few more weeks, all work is homework and I’ve been forced to reform. Instead of thinking about homework I’ve thought about bridging work. How can I keep the conversation ticking along between lessons? Technology has helped and I’m lucky that the majority of my students have suitable devices with which to join in. I’ve started to record myself doing worked examples and modelling my thinking process out loud. Sometimes even a simple explanation or short lecture. I posed a few questions at the end of the video and students responded in a shared doc. As a result we hit the ground running on our next live lesson.

It’s fair to say that lockdown has made many of us value communities, both big and small. Communities are built on relationships and relationships are built on dialogue. I hope we’ll find time and space to nurture dialogue, both now and in the future.

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