What might once have been called a gentleman farmer. Ruddy cheeked, brusque and jolly in tweed and a flat cap. Part of the hunting set.
He has had a good day. The weather’s been fine. The guns have shot well. There’s a nip of whiskey on his breath as he leans to my ear in a kitchen packed full of men and dogs and the smell of the outdoors.
“I told her to leave her at the hospital and forget about her.” He says. He looks me in the eye. “I’m ashamed I said that.”
Although I don’t know him very well, he doesn’t look like the sort of man to which shame comes often. He has an air of thrusting confidence.
But I believe him. The way he fixes my eye makes this moment intense and the deliberate way he says ‘ashamed’ makes me sure he is telling the truth.
“I told her to leave her. To have another one and forget about her. It’s what everyone said then. It’s what you were supposed to do. She didn’t listen and now..” He breaks off and for a heartbeat I think he will cry. He does not and carries on. “I’m glad she didn’t listen. She’s a wonderful girl. Like other little girls. My granddaughter. She lives in Canada now but we visit all the time.” He pulls a phone from his pocket and shows me photos of a beautiful four-year-old on a beach, in a park, with her family.
A beautiful four-year-old with Downs Syndrome.
I don’t think this man knew he was making a confession or that he was in small way trying to atone. But I think it was what he was doing. He was also – of course – offering me kindness in the early months after our own daughter was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome. Trying to comfort me. Telling me things would be OK.
This sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.
More now as the curriculum I’ve written and the website I’ve created goes out into the wild and begin to connect with people. What was once a trickle is becoming something of a flood. People stop me on corridors and send me emails. I get messages from the website and Twitter DMs.
As hard as they are to hear receiving these stories is an honour.
Whispers that rhyme with whispers I’ve heard before.
“They made us send him away.”
“Nobody wanted to talk to us about it.”
“He’s embarrassed to tell anyone.”
“We couldn’t visit her.”
“They just carried on around him like he wasn’t there.”
“They made us do it.”
“I feel ashamed, angry, bitter.”
Tales of love and loss. Of people who have loved and still love people with learning disabilities fooled into acting against their human instincts by tricksy words and sighs and meaningless platitudes like “it’s the best thing, it’s all for the best, move on, have another.” People who did what they were told was right but knew was wrong. People who hurt themselves by doing what everyone said they should do. People who were told not to love their own children.
The people who confess to me are confessing sins that are not theirs but have scarred deeply nonetheless.
There is something in our own humanity which knows all of us are sacred but we often struggle to find words to explain the reasons. Because we lack the words to defend people with learning disabilities awful things happen and it is because we know how wrong these things are that the horrors – whether this is T4 in Germany or the death rate from Covid-19 – disgust and appal us.
Our passions will not bend to our reasons.
We may think we have succeeded for a while with our clever thoughts and words but the illusion can’t hold for long. Soon the smoke evaporates and the mirrors crack, and when the damage is revealed it is too late to do anything but live with a pain that drips down through generations.
Traffic laws, conventions and regulations do not perfectly suit many people. There are some excellent drivers who could safely exceed the speed limit on motorways. There are some drivers who have slower than average reaction times for whom even sixty miles per hour is much too fast. In the middle of the night there really is no reason why motorists could not safely park on double-yellow lines in some areas.
The laws, conventions and regulations we have are best-fit compromises – inevitably imperfect for an imperfect world in which there are a near-infinite number of interested parties with often conflicting aims.
We all understand and accept it has to be this way. The alternative – to personalise traffic laws to every motorist’s individual context – would be preposterously complicated and chaotic – worse for everyone overall.
We are not as good as accepting this about education despite the problem being effectively the same.
If we were to set up education to meet the individual learning needs of each child what we’d come up with probably wouldn’t look much like schools today. It might involve highly trained personal tutors for every child or at least for small groups of similar children. Teaching might start and finish later than most schools do today. It could mean no formal grades at all at any point.
Such an uncompromising approach to education – or a different one looking entirely different might – or indeed might not – increase overall learning.
It would also be incredibly expensive with the country having less money to spend on health or pensions. It would probably be a tough political sell and a party proposing it likely to be heavily defeated at its next election. It might pose serious childcare issues for families. It might also mean destinations using less transparent and more mysterious criteria than exam grades to make decisions about who to admit.
This is not comfortable. Nobody likes to compromise or even consider compromise about things we care a lot about. Doing so can feel like a moral failure and an admission of defeat. And most of us don’t have to do it. When we are responsible for only part and not the whole of the puzzle we have the luxury of not considering the trade-offs and can safely argue we want more or less of something without thinking about what the impact of this would be on other things. We can argue for exponential increases in school budgets without having to propose where proportionate cuts should be made. We could make a case for schools staying open late into the evening without worrying about how pupils will get home.
Others – those responsible for putting all the pieces together – do not have the luxury of such moral purity. These people make choices knowing in a world that’s never zero sum, advantaging one individual or group disadvantages others, and the relative merits of each proposed strategy or policy must be carefully and dispassionately assessed. This can be very unpleasant and disturbing work but it has to be done because not doing it means making huge life-changing decisions on whims without oversight, which sadly but inevitably often ends up damaging the most vulnerable in society most of all.
This is – of course – not to say bets are always right or those responsible for making them are always the right people. Very often they are not and often the consequences of the wrong bet can be catastrophic. My recent interest in the history of people with learning disabilities has provided me with many awful case studies of this – but doing better cannot mean thinking about the wider consequences of our decisions less.
All of this is as true for classroom teachers as it is for high falutin’ decision makers. What is best for a whole class may not be best for any of the individuals in it. The way children prefer to read is a good example – some individuals may like to read on a beanbag while listening to music while others may like to sit at a desk in silence. Both children cannot get their preference in the same classroom without making other adaptations that create further complexities. The teacher has to make a decision which will be a compromise which recognises many interlocking and moving parts and might not give any one person exactly what they want.
This is not to go as far as saying there is no place for very radical proposals. To say so would be to place blind trust in authority it can never be deserving of and precludes the possibility of paradigm changes from which huge numbers of people benefit. Those those making cases for dramatic change must also account for all the wide-ranging consequences of them and pre-emptively find ways to mitigate against the worst while allowing room to adapt to the inevitable unexpected.
Whether it’s ending exams forever, individually personalising learning or reducing holidays those advocating the idea must also have ideas about all the things that happen because of their decision and not just the good bits they’re excited about. They must understand all big decisions have losers as well as winners and they must be willing to speak calmly and rationally with those who will be negatively affected. They must recognise not doing this and making out their idea is a sort of panacea is at best disingenuous.
If we want thinking and conversations about change to lead to actual meaningful change we must have them in the context of the world we live in and avoid utopian pontificating – interesting in the pub on a Friday night but no good at all in a meeting on Monday morning.
Failing to do this isn’t bravery or conviction. It is wilful ignorance.
I’d like to begin by telling you what big fans of yours us teachers are! We love your books and your columns. We love your music and your acting. We admire your expertise. We think you are great!
We think it is brilliant you are taking such an interest in what your children are being taught remotely. It would have been nice if you’d been as interested before you were at stuck at home with them but I suppose – like all of us – you only have so many hours in the day. All that book and column writing, all that music making and all the acting must take up a lot of time.
We know children can be quite reticent about what they’ve done with their teachers when they get home and in the rush to get dinner on the table it’s hard to have a proper conversation with them about it. Still – if you ever really want to know what’s on the curriculum we’re always available – just send us an email or call. We think parental involvement is important. We’ll make time.
We understand you have a right to make your opinions heard about what your children learn. Just as we have the right to say what we like about your work, we also have the right to say when we think you’ve done something that isn’t as great.
And we don’t think the newspaper articles you are writing and the tweets you are sending about what children do in school are very good at all. We think they’re poorly informed and recycle old arguments as if they hadn’t been made many times already. Although we are sure you mean well it’s making our job harder at an already tough time.
The first thing you should be aware of is criticisms of what and how schools teach are not new. We’re quite accustomed to celebrities sticking the boot in. Every year Jeremy Clarkson tells all our pupils and us how little exams matter and uses descriptions of all his expensive cars as evidence of it. “I did terribly in my exams and I am rich! Don’t worry if you fail!”
We’re used to Jeremy now but as fond of him as we have grown we feel a responsibility to point out where he’s gone wrong. The thing is passing exams might not have been very important for him. His parents owned a business which meant he had a secure job after school and they sound very much like the sort of go-getters who had the capacity to support him really well in all sorts of ways.
But as you of course understand not everyone who fails exams is Jeremey Clarkson. Most aren’t. Most benefit from the wider range of choices that good exam grades provide.
What I’m getting at here is our school system is not set up just for children with lots of advantages. Children from all sorts of backgrounds sit in the same classrooms together. If a child is lucky enough to be born with natural intelligence, has access to loads of books and has parents who have time to spend reading to her perhaps it isn’t as important she learns about fronted adverbials and graphemes. Perhaps they might be able to learn a lot of the principles behind these sorts of things by a sort of unconscious osmosis – as you may have done too.
Lots of children – actually most – don’t have these advantages. It is these children we worry most about. We use terms like fronted adverbials and graphemes and other things you intuitively understand but not know the words for because they allow us to directly teach the things more fortunate children might already be confident with.
It might also be helpful to consider the concept of expert induced blindness, which happens to us all when we become – as you are – brilliant at something. As experts it is very hard for us to remember what it was like to not know a lot about the stuff we now know loads about. This is why a world class mathematician might struggle to teach someone simple multiplication and find someone else’s method of doing so bizarre. If this happens to you a little humility might be in order – try to remember although you may be an expert in maths you are probably not an expert in teaching maths to eight-year-olds and admitting so in no way undermines your professional standing.
This isn’t for one second to say what schools do is always right or always done well or you haven’t the right to ask questions. Sometimes practice isn’t effective and sometimes you might have very legitimate concerns about what your child is being taught in school. But do remember what I wrote earlier – you could always contact your child’s school and ask for clarification. You might learn what you thought was nonsense makes sense when the way it fits into the wider curriculum is explained to you. Or you might still be unsatisfied with the answer and want closer involvement with the school.
Perhaps you might even consider becoming a parent governor and playing a really important role in the education of hundreds of children?
But we know you are busy.
We understand why you might find time to write an article or tweet a criticism you might not feel you have enough to really get to grips with why things work like they do in schools. If that’s the case perhaps it would be nicer if you demonstrated a bit more trust of the people who teach your children every day of the week for years and years rather than shaming them to your huge audiences?
You have a right to your opinions but a responsibility to ensure they are well informed. Look – we know how hard teaching children is and how stressed you must be but please try to avoid using your platforms to let off steam because the reasons for something your child has been asked to do aren’t immediately obvious to you.
People listen to you. If you are wrong there may be some without the advantages you’ve provided your children who stop supporting their child with tasks they really need to do.
As long as there have been people in the world there have been people who have not been able to learn as quickly as others.
Sometimes the cause of this is an accident that changes the way a person’s brain works. Sometimes people are born with genetic differences which makes learning more difficult than it is for other people. Sometimes we don’t know the reason.
Today if a person’s ability to learn is limited compared to others and this is part of who they are rather than a specific issue they have that could be overcome, we describe them as having learning disabilities. Perhaps you feel you have learning disabilities, or have friends or members of your family who do and you are thinking about them right now.
People with learning disabilities are made vulnerable in societies that do not include them, and deny them rights others take for granted. Tasks may take them longer and they may need help to do some things others can do on their own. They may also need help to stay safe, to make and keep friends, to care for themselves and to stay healthy. When thinking about this you should remember all of us have disabilities when we are compared with others – for example, you probably would be classed as having a learning disability if compared with Albert Einstein. You should also be aware that how people have defined learning disability has changed over time and is dependent on the values and beliefs of the past society. People who are regarded as having learning disabilities today may not have been regarded as having any disability at all in some past societies.
Just as people without learning disabilities are very different so people with learning disabilities are very different to each other too, with disabilities that range from very mild to very profound and complicated by associated separate conditions that affect health. Like all people they have likes and dislikes, ideas, dreams, hopes and fears. Like all of us they find some things funny and other things sad.
In this enquiry you will learn about how different societies at different times and in different places have regarded and treated people with learning disabilities and reasons for their beliefs and actions. Finding out about this is often difficult – people with learning disabilities can struggle to communicate in ways that are easily understood, which means we often rely on records left by others. These records – often called sources by historians – also show the impact people with learning disabilities have made on those around them and by paying careful attention to this we can hear their voices too. Here we see upsetting examples of cruelty but also humour and deep affection.
As well as telling us about what people thought about those with learning disabilities, these records also tell us very interesting things about past societies – what did they care about and value? How did they decide who had learning disabilities and who did not? How did they explain and see difference? How did they treat people who needed more help than others? What were the reasons for their beliefs and actions?
This enquiry is about people with learning disabilities, but it is not just about people with learning disabilities – it is also a history of the societies in which they lived.
People with learning disabilities are human so their stories – which are just as interesting and important as those of other people – are part of the human story. You are human so the history of people with learning difficulties is not just their history – it is yours too.
A note on language
The words used to describe people with learning disabilities in the past can seem offensive to us today. Sometimes the people who used these words meant them as insults but at other times they were not intending to be cruel. In order to be historically accurate this enquiry contains some of these words. What was meant by them at the time will always be explained. You should not use words we regard as offensive and insulting outside of their historical context. This means you should not use them unless you are talking about history and you are certain the person you are talking with understands your meaning. If they do not understand and get upset, it is you who is in the wrong. If you are not sure about the correct use of a word you should check with your teacher before you use it. Using words to describe people with learning disabilities as insults is very wrong and disrespectful of the people you are learning about. In many cases it is also against the law. Don’t do it.
In 1764 a baby girl was born to a rich and well-connected family near Bath. They named her Fanny. It soon became clear she was not developing the way typical children did. She couldn’t count to twenty, didn’t know her left from her right hand or the names of the days of the week. Once while out walking in thunderstorm, delighted by a bolt of lightening, she asked her companions to “do it again”. Even as a young adult she needed help dressing and protection from dangers like the garden pond.
In 1786 when she was twenty-two she was kidnapped by an army lieutenant called Henry Bowerman, who tricked her into going to a nearby village by telling her there would be strawberries and cream. Here she was separated from her trusted companions and taken to France, where Bowerman tried to find a priest who would perform a marriage ceremony so he could take her inheritance. Bowerman struggled to find a priest to do this because it was clear Fanny did not understand what was happening. Eventually Bowerman and his co-conspirators got an English priest drunk enough to agree to conduct the service.
We can only imagine what Fanny’s mother went through.
When she found out where her daughter was, she sent four investigators to locate Fanny and bring her home. The investigators found her and, accompanied by three French Cavaliers, they took her away from Bowerman and returned her to her mother.
Bowerman appealed to court, claiming the only reason Fanny did not understand what had happened was because her mother gave her alcoholic drink and that the marriage should be considered legitimate. The court quickly rejected this ridiculous excuse after it became clear Fanny could not give logical answers about who she wanted to marry and how much property she owned.
Fanny’s mother reluctantly agreed to have her daughter declared an ‘idiot’ so she could have official guardianship of her and so legally protect her. She had not wanted to do this before “on account of her maternal affection and extreme tenderness for her daughter,” which meant she loved her so much she did not want to do something that might embarrass her.
The marriage was annulled. Fanny was returned to her mother who now had legal guardianship of her.
In 1780 a poor young skin-gatherer who worked in a London meat market appeared in court accused of taking part in a riot. Regularly teased by other boys, Thomas Baggott was accepted to be an ‘idiot’ who did not really understand the value of money and would do no work unless he had to.
Witnesses claimed he had been seen drunk helping destroy a house. Shocked by the level of violence in the riot the government encouraged harsh sentences. Thomas could be hanged. His life was at stake.
At Thomas’ trial six witnesses appeared in his defence, which included his workmates, his employer, his sister and his mother. Three other people provided character witness statements.
All the witnesses provided Thomas with alibis – claiming he had been with them at the time of the riot. The only thing consistent about the statements was that Thomas wasn’t at the riot. He couldn’t possibly have been with all the people who said he was with them at the same time!
The judge clearly knew this and warned the witnesses they could themselves get into trouble for perjury, which means lying to court. He told them to be careful. They did not change their stories with one saying “I am very careful, and very sure he was employed in the yard until dinner-time.”
It seems pretty clear Thomas had in fact taken part in the riot but the jury chose to go along with the stories and acquitted him. Thomas left court free and went back to his life in the community.
Thomas’ life was not perfect. He was teased and probably often treated badly. But when his life was at stake the people who knew him were willing to risk their own freedom to stop him being punished for committing a crime they knew he might not have really understood.
When push came to shove, he was one of their own.
 Simon Jarrett. Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Reaktion Books. 2020. P38
 Simon Jarrett. Those They Called Idiots. The idea of the disabled mind from 1700 to the present day. Reaktion Books. 2020. P46
At the best of times education is an inherently low-validity domain.
The dizzying range of moving parts in schools and the interactions between them, combined with huge variability between and within cohorts make them bad laboratories for just about everything. Research in education is tricky and working out what impact something has had when there’s a lot of other stuff going on at the same time is even trickier.
Did results decline because we changed the specification? Or was it because the second in English went on paternity leave? Or was it because it turns out Growth Mindset is a bit more complicated than we thought? All of these things? One of them? None? Something else we haven’t thought of?
We just don’t know for sure and getting certainty is hard because all the evidence comes from contexts different – often very different – to our own.
The uncertainty can be overwhelming. It is quite understandable some schools give up trying to work it out. Indeed, in an unplanned unofficial way my hunch this is quite a common approach of schools where pupils get strong results –if everything together seems to be working then working out the degree different components have contributed doesn’t seem that important or urgent. After all, if it isn’t broken then why fix it? – especially if there is a risk your repair might make things worse.
Struggling schools find themselves in a much more unenviable position.
When it is clear things aren’t working, finding out what and why becomes very important, but no less difficult. For most in circumstances like this inaction is not an option. Standing still is going backwards and people who go backwards don’t last long in education.
Much better to roll up sleeves and get tstuck in to something regardless of whether or not this thing is actually a thing that needs to be done. The point can easily become to be seen to be working hard – displaying a Stakhanovitic work ethic that means if things improve you take the credit and if things go badly you can’t be blamed, or even better, give the impression were it not for you results would have been even worse.
This is a deeply risk averse and defensive position to take, and makes genuine improvement hard because wrapped up in it is the assumption real improvement isn’t possible. It is short-term survivalist thinking, which casts eyes down on underfoot trip hazards and makes it impossible to see better routes.
Most of those taking this approach are of course not deliberately and purposefully cynical, but it is fair to point out never experiencing meaningful improvement and lacking the time and space to find out what does work elsewhere can mean alternative approaches aren’t obvious.
Why this post? Why now?
Education has never been a less valid domain than it is now and will be when pupils return to our schools. The infinite variability that existed before is even more infinite. There is so, so much we do not know and are making assumptions about.
In all this uncertainty that it’s going to continue to be hard is probably a reasonable bet.
So is the understanding on the whole pupils will know less than they would have had there never been a pandemic, and how significant this gap will be will vary wildly and be broadly stratified by advantage.
It is going to be difficult and we face new challenges at time when as a profession we are all tired, and some of us exhausted. There is no surplus energy in the system. We cannot waste what we have on pointless displacement activity. We need to be honest about what we’ve tried and what has and hasn’t worked free of ego and fear of punishment for not being visibly busy enough. We must avoid rewarding ourselves and others for work we’ve done for any other reason than it helps children learn and while we can never have certainty our bets are the right ones we should be making them consciously and basing them on the best evidence we can find.
This is very obvious. We know this, but despite us all knowing this defensive make-work has been going on for years and so we must be extra vigilant for it. We must make the space to identify what works best and then execute this well rather than throwing ourselves into things on instinct and out of a desire to appear energetic. To make matters even more complex novel ways of working during this pandemic have created whole new ways of doing things and many new methods have obvious non-pandemic utility; the temptation may be to layer these on to what we traditionally do without removing anything to compensate. There is a danger that the moral urgency of ‘catching up’ on lost learning will lead to such acute moral urgency that nothing feels like an unreasonable expectation.
Like Boxer we may work ourselves into glue, with the point the glue rather than the work.
If this happens we will have squandered an opportunity presented by rare clarity on the extent of the struggle we face and how much what we do matters.
There is no slack in the system and we have neither the time nor the energy to spend impressing others for the sake of it or to hide a fear we don’t know what we should do. We must recognise this as a national – even international – problem and frame it as a collective endeavour.
We can’t do the things we want or see the people we want to see. For many of us it’s even worse than that with us desperately worried about the people we care most about. Some of us have been really ill. Some of us are processing premature bereavements. Some of us are really scared about the future – about our jobs and how we’ll afford the things we need.
Yes. Life is a bit rubbish at the moment except here and right now in this place somehow it isn’t.
Year 10 and 11 are sitting in a circle playing drums, led by their music teacher who is smiling and nodding and cajoling and encouraging. A sound that comes from far away across oceans and mountains and valleys and mighty rivers connects us all to a world that’s been closed in on itself for nearly a year now. We take it seriously but we are laughing too. This joyful sound we make resonates through our whole school, heard by the chess players and the dancers and the cooks, all grabbing the gift of a screen free day with both hands. Then it’s lunch time and we move the speakers into the canteen and there’s loud music and responsibly distanced dancing.
Those of us who are here are the really lucky ones but those who can’t join in with us here aren’t excluded either. We’ve brought in as many as we can safely hold just for today. Those at home are rising to the screen-free challenges they have been set while their parents meet with their tutors, who are talking about all the remote learning stuff, and checking it’s working, and finding problems and solutions and reassuring and making light of all this awkwardness and inconvenience because what better way is there to do this?
Here we all are doing what we’ve always done. Caring, educating, teaching and learning. All of us travelling together, closer when the road is tougher even though it might not look like it from the outside.
And yet there are those who say schools are closed.
Most teachers who are successful at teaching remotely find ways to dissolve screens, making their online classrooms feel like their physical ones.
These teachers do not fetishise technology and new ways of working for their own sake – instead, whether it is communicating means of participation, checking for understanding or anything else, they identify what they do when they have pupils in front of them and then seek out ways to organise this over the online platforms available to them.
They find what works well then aim for consistency, which makes sense given how well we know most children respond to predictability and stability. It’s easy to appreciate why this works well – we want our pupils focused on learning, not on how they should hand work in and get it marked.
Fewer methods done well seems a good rule to follow when deciding how best to give feedback. There are many options and in the attempt to encourage our pupils to continue submitting work it is easy to end up responding in lots of different ways without providing any guidance on what work to send in, or how and what sort of feedback those in our classes should expect.
This isn’t too much of a problem in the early days of remote teaching but as pupils become more accustomed to it and we start expecting them to hand more work in, it is important to make some intentional decisions about how work should be submitted and fed back on to avoid confusing and overloading ourselves and our pupils.
The rest of this post is a summary of the different ways I’ve seen teachers feedback on work submitted by their pupils. All have strengths and limitations. Whichever methods you choose it is important to be mindful that the principles of giving feedback have not changed; be intentional about what work you want handed in, why you will give feedback and what you will do differently as a result of what you learn. For anyone wanting a recap on these principles, this excellent blog post from Harry Fletcher-Wood is a good reminder of the things we should think about before we decide whether and how to give feedback to pupils.
Self-marking quizzing apps.
While it is a very thin one, the greater use of subject specific self-marking quizzing apps produced on external platforms and those produced by teachers themselves in programmes like Google and Microsoft Forms have been a silver lining in the remote learning cloud. These are extremely useful both for retrieval practise and for gaining a quick understanding of what pupils know and don’t know. Perhaps the greatest benefit of these is the way in which the can provide pupils with automatic feedback without any involvement of the teacher beyond setting the quiz in the first place.
These are powerful tools which will remain with us beyond the end of the pandemic, but alone cannot be sufficient. If teachers do not provide more personalised feedback too, it is likely all but the most intrinsically motivated pupils will gradually become less and less concerned about how well they do in these, making other forms of communication and feedback necessary too. In addition, the nature of quizzing apps means they are not effective in helping pupils to improve their work in all tasks and in all subjects.
Pupils email work in and get individual responses in writing.
This might be the least technologically intimidating method for most teachers and pupils. It involves setting a deadline and then asking pupils to email what they’ve done, be it a photo of their written work or an attached document. The teacher then reads this work and writes feedback in an emailed reply.
The main advantages of this method are its simplicity and its immediacy. It can be much quicker than marking books as there is no time wasted finding the right work. Teachers should not, however, assume that pupils will know how to address and format the email so they will need to be taught. To make all this more efficient, teachers should be clear with pupils about whether they are expected to submit work in the body of the email, whether they should attach a file or whether either method is fine.
One inherent irritation of this method is pupils do not submit their work at the same time. This means it can be very distracting as emails fill up inboxes, and can also result in inconsistent feedback as the teacher responds at times when they have varying levels of time and energy. To avoid this it is sensible to plan time when work will be read and responded to, and set up folders to place work in, rather than trying to reply to all work in real time. Pupils will be fine with this as long as they are told when they will get feedback on their work. The issue with always replying instantly or near enough instantly is this then sets the expectation this is the norm, which then causes frustration when feedback ends up being delayed.
Another disadvantage of this method is that teachers may well find themselves repeating almost identical feedback again and again, which can be a waste of time. Teachers who find themselves doing this may want to consider whether whole class feedback would be a more appropriate.
Pupils email work in and get whole class feedback
Whole class feedback might also involve pupils emailing work in by a deadline, but instead of all receiving individual feedback the teacher could identify key areas of strength, gaps in knowledge, misconceptions and areas that need re-teaching. This can be done through a PowerPoint presentation, handwritten notes placed under a visualiser or one feedback document shared with the whole class. Teachers might also screenshot examples of good work and with pupil permission share it with the class to provide more models. A significant positive of this is the way in which it helps create and sustain a feedback loop and so embedding the principle of responsive teaching.
Whole class feedback is of course no panacea and there is no reason it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done in conjunction with individual feedback – this works very well so long as pupils are very clear on what sort of feedback they should expect, when they should get it and what they should do with it.
Pupils submit work via the online platform they use for lessons and receive verbal feedback.
Some teachers may find it easier to keep on top of submitted work if instead of being emailed it is placed in the online platform pupils use, for example Teams’ Class Notebook Function. This avoids the irritation of hundreds of emails and is neat in that work is all stored in the same place, making it easier for teachers and pupils to look back through work done over sequence of lessons. Teachers who wish to pursue this option would be wise to spend a bit of time explaining to their classes how they want work organised to avoid pupils becoming the electronic equivalent of children who write work into whichever page in their exercise book it happens to fall open to.
Feedback can then be provided in the same way as it is for work e-mailed in.
Or – and this is quite exciting – the teacher can use their computer microphone to add voice notes to a pupil work. This is fast and feels more personal than marking. In Microsoft Teams all that’s required is to click on “Insert” and then “Audio”. Recording begins automatically and after clicking stop the audio file appears as a clickable file in the document.
The “Dictate” option in Teams also allows the option of having verbal feedback converted to text, which may be attractive to some, but as with any new way of doing things teachers should consider whether the associated faff makes it worth it. Sometimes, as Nintendo’s Genpui Yokoi well understood, sticking with what everyone is familiar with is a better choice. Only those who knows a class well will be able to decisions around what will work best for them.
All that’s left to be said is while some experimentation will be necessary in the early stages, it is usually much better if teachers decide what they are going to do intentionally, communicate this clearly and keep the focus on feedback not format. That last thing anyone wants is to have lots of poorly conceptualised systems going on at the same time, resulting in work arriving in many places at many different times with no clear idea of what will be done with any of it.
Whether remote or face-to-face, the principles of giving feedback well are the same whether we have pupils in our physical classrooms or not.
Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion made me angry the first time I read it.
It made me angry because after ten years of teaching I still felt barely competent, and the improvements I’d made had been hard fought and difficult. Years of trial and error, of contradictory suggestions around approach, of VAK and brain gym and thinking hats all mixed in with probably really useful stuff that I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to separate from the rubbish.
TLAC made me cross because here, for the first time, were simple actionable strategies and techniques sourced from outstanding teachers all collated in one place. “This would have saved me years”, I thought as I read about effective methods it had taken me ages to stumble upon. “Ha!”, I thought as I read about “rounding up” and recognised it as something I still did.
The best part of another decade on from the moment I first opened TLAC and once again a book curated by Doug Lemov has made me react emotionally.
More on why later. First why it’s useful.
Teaching In the Online Classroom is the closest thing any of us has to a guide for how to teach without children physically present in our classrooms. Lemov and his team, as humbly and respectfully as you’d expect from them, have gone on an expedition into this unfamiliar new normal and brought back the findings of the teachers they’ve found working out there. It’s more of a map than a manual.
In a manner those familiar with TLAC will know well, Lemov and his team have then broken down what they think makes online learning work best, developed language to describe it and then given clear direction on implementation. The book moves from the basics and then gets progressively more involved, which means those using it can work at their own pace and won’t feel at all overloaded.
Each technique has an accompanying video which exemplifies what’s described. Watching these remarkable videos makes me feel a bit weak. They’re a sort of quiet, everyday heroism. Ordinary teachers, exposed and way out of their comfort zones, often sharing their homes with their classes, doing all they can to replicate the wonders they do with children in front of them through a screen. These teachers, as we all do, have every excuse not to bother; to use the scale of the challenge in front of them as an excuse to fold to passivity and inactivity.
But they have not and they do not just as we have not and we do not.
They experiment and they improve.
They make children feel known and important.
They treat their work with a seriousness that shows without words how much their pupils mean to them and how profound they understand their responsibility to be even at this, the most difficult of times.
My one criticism would be the title of the second chapter “Dissolve the Screen” should really have been the title of the whole book because this is the thread that runs right the way through it; an understanding schools are wonderful things missed by us all, and the best we can do when we’re now allowed to be all together is to make it feel as if we are.
And it isn’t just Lemov’s teachers who are doing this.
It’s all of us.
It’s all of us struggling to do right by our pupils in a world none of us asked for or wants to live in. All of us working the long hard and frustrating hours trying to make a quiz work so we can better know whether what we’ve taught has landed. All of us with the honour of being welcome in someone else’s classroom to learn from what they have learned. It’s all of us, every day, trying to things that make us uncomfortable better because we know how important it is we get good at this new thing that both is and isn’t teaching.
And Teaching in the Online Classroom knows all this. It isn’t a bossy tome on what we’ve all been doing wrong. It doesn’t scald or sneer. It’s a love letter to our profession at a time we need one.
It’s a call to arms and it’s weapons to fight with.