En un lugar de La Mancha… so opens Don Quixote, Cervantes’s masterpiece and a founding work of modern Western literature. Usually translated as “Somewhere in La Mancha…”, the line evokes a sense of impenetrable remoteness and bewildering isolation. La Mancha was and remains a secluded, windmill-strewn and arid plateau in central Spain, sparsely inhabited by people but densely populated by Manchego cheese producing ewes. An unlikely place if ever there was one for a chivalrous knight-errant from which to hail and where to pursue romance.
These days the heroic efforts required to court the object of one’s unrequited love are performed by invisible code wrights and computer smiths, whose incomprehensible algorithms manifest themselves as apps on our devices and ensure that we remain together regardless of physical absence. We may be locked down, but we need not be isolated.
My school’s decision three years ago to implement a class-leading digital strategy to support and extend teaching and learning may now appear prescient. We couldn’t have foreseen the arrival of Covid-19 or the impact of the measures to counter its spread, but the early implementation of our digital strategy and the considerable concerted efforts of pupils, parents and staff have allowed us to segue into remote teaching and learning with poise, aplomb and relative ease.
Our digital strategy never set out to vanquish completely the tyranny of spacetime: the need to be in a particular place at a specific time. Instead we devised it to be firmly grounded on evidence and sagely informed by practice. To us technology was never a substitute for effective teaching, but rather its enabler; nor was it a distraction from successful learning, but rather its accomplice.
So, although never designed for fully remote teaching and learning, tools like Sparkjar, Seesaw, Microsoft Teams and our bespoke Digital Learning Spaces have allowed us to transcend many of the physical limitations of school closure. We all look forward to the time when schools can welcome its pupils back to the havens of curiosity, inspiration and knowledge we call classrooms. However, in schools with a well thought-through digital strategy, we can continue to learn, separated only by distance.
Remote teaching differs only superficially from classroom teaching. At the core of successful teaching lie key principles of instruction that remain the same whether you are in the same room as your students or in the middle of a wind-swept, dusty plateau in central Spain.
If you examine a good remote lesson closely you will find that lessons still comprise a review of prior knowledge; the introduction, modelling and scaffolding of new content; the provision of opportunities for both guided and independent practice; and the receipt of the feedback necessary to reflect, adapt and make the requisite progress.
But great teaching is more than the imparting of knowledge and the delivery of content. The human element and the development of personal relationships continue to be essential, that is why at Embley, we incorporate videoconferencing into our remote lessons routinely. Not only does this offer students who might not be able to see each other the opportunity to interact with peers and work together in a subject-specific, academic context, but also to hear the encouragement, support and kind firmness implicit in each of the teachers’ instructions, questions and explanations.
Despite all the advanced technologies in use, ours is not the whizzy approach, but the solidly researched and pedagogically effective one. Remote lessons will contain a variety of approaches that will vary from teacher to teacher and from subject to subject, as they would in a normal school day. And they will include opportunities for pupils to work independently, as they would in a classroom-based lesson.
Learning remotely places unique demands on pupils, who suddenly find themselves outside the normal context within which they are used to working. This is challenging for them on three counts.
Firstly, pupils will miss the rules and expectations of classroom behaviour and etiquette. With this in mind, we acted promptly to update our Responsible User Agreement for the Use of ICT, so as to provide our pupils with the rules and expectations that frees them to be able to participate productively in remote lessons and to continue learning in a safe environment.
Secondly, we ensured that our pupils retained the routines and structure of the school day as much as possible. Tutor time, assemblies and teacher-led timetabled lessons all continue to provide the scaffold around which learning and progress are woven.
Finally, the sheer amount of work that students are able to complete in a normal school day cannot be faithfully replicated in the remote learning context, as it would place an unreasonably large workload on them that could quickly become unmanageable and lead to a substantial detriment in wellbeing. To avoid this, our lessons are carefully structured to provide students with the time and opportunity to complete work that can be submitted to teachers at the tap of a screen.
The role of parents and guardians
The consequences of the school closure and subsequent nationwide lockdown have also placed an unprecedented set of demands on us parents, who suddenly find ourselves juggling our jobs, childcare, and the continuity of our children’s education.
From a parent’s perspective then, the best possible way to support children at this time is to reinforce school routines and expectations, which derive directly from extensive knowledge and expertise in education. It may be tempting to relax expectations and routines, maybe as a result of peer pressure, but learning will not be as successful without clear yet reasonable expectations and routines can only support those who follow them regularly.
In addition, providing pupils with a quiet, interruption-free and appropriate environment within which to work is ideal. We know that this may not always be possible, but at the very least parents should take care to plan household routines so that they do not clash with school.
Above anything else, please remember that we are here to help in whichever way we can. What at first may appear to be hulking giants or marching armies, may, with our help, support and guidance, turn out to be graceful windmills and grazing sheep, as Don Quixote found much to his chagrin.
What does the future hold?
As the old Danish adage goes, most famously articulated by physicist Niels Bohr, “it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. It is only natural to speculate at this time about what changes to schooling and education, if any, will result from the forced pivoting to fully remote teaching and learning. Will remote teaching and learning revolutionise how schools operate? Or will we rejoice in eschewing technology as soon as schools reopen?
In reality, the debate isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, this polarised. While some may be tempted to tilt at these windmills, at Embley we pride ourselves in taking a more clear-eyed approach that has allowed us over the years to entwine technology seamlessly into the processes involved in teaching and learning and so to marry innovation with tradition happily. As a result, we are enviably well placed to weather the current crisis while ensuring continuity of learning for our pupils, whatever the future holds.