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Research School Network: Pedagogy Trumps Format In this post Shaun Allison explores why a focus on great explanations when remote teaching is more important than the format


Pedagogy Trumps Format

In this post Shaun Allison explores why a focus on great explanations when remote teaching is more important than the format

by Durrington Research School
on the

In this TES article Professor Becky Francis stresses the point that when it comes to remote teaching, it is the quality of teaching that matters most and that this is far more important than how lessons are delivered. This links to a rapid evidence assessment that the EEF published out in April:

Pupils can learn through remote teaching. Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between teaching in real time (“synchronous teaching”) and alternatives (“asynchronous teaching”). For example, teachers might explain a new idea live or in a prerecorded video. But what matters most is whether the explanation builds clearly on pupils’ prior learning or how pupils’ understanding is subsequently assessed.”


This is further supported by an OFSTED review of remote teaching published this week:

Some think that a live lesson is the gold standard’ of remote education. This isn’t necessarily the case. Live lessons have a lot of advantages. They can make curriculum alignment easier, and can keep pupils’ attention, not least as the teacher has more control over the learning environment. But live lessons are not always more effective than asynchronous approaches.

There are some specific difficulties in doing live lessons. It can be hard to build in interaction and flexibility. This means that giving feedback can actually be less effective than when we use recorded lesson segments followed by interactive chats, or tasks and feedback. Using recorded lessons produced externally can allow you to easily draw on high-quality lessons taught by expert subject teachers. The challenge here can be to make sure they are integrated with the curriculum.

Because evidence suggests that concentration online is shorter than the length of a typical lesson, filming a classroom lesson may be ineffective.”


So the message is clear. Whether you are teaching live or using recorded lessons, what matters most is to focus on the quality of teaching – in particular, really clear and concise explanations. Ideally, a balance of both is probably the best approach. To make our explanations as effective as possible when remote teaching, it’s worth focusing on four key principles:

1. Tether your explanation to what they already know.

2. Don’t try to cover too much

3. Exploit the idea of dual coding

4. Continue with explicit vocabulary instruction


Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

1. Tether your explanation to what they already know.


We learn in the context of what we already know, so prior knowledge is key to learning. The schemata (connected webs of information on a given topic stored in our long-term memories) of our students connected to what we are trying to teach them have in some cases been well maintained during lockdown and in other cases badly eroded. In order to overcome this we need to work to activate as much prior knowledge as possible before teaching new material remotely. We can do this using strategies including:

Mindmaps (done from memory) – ask students to produce a mindmap, take a photo and share it with you. Share good examples in the stream.

Questioning – ask students questions in a live’ bit of a lesson and ask them to answer in the chat.

Quizzes – Google forms are great for this.

Short videos of teacher recaps – to bring the prior knowledge to the fore.

Use concrete examples to explain abstract ideas e.g. scarcity in business. A concrete example of this is new computer games being scarce when it is first launched.



2. Don’t try to cover too much


We need to consider cognitive load theory when planning our explanations. The germane load (the connection between the new material and what we already know) which we rely on to support our explanation in usual circumstances will not be present for many students so we need to work on reducing the extraneous load (distractions from the learning) as far as possible. We can do this through:

Chunking our explanations of complex ideas or procedures – don’t try to cover too much when explaining ideas remotely.

Using worked examples to support complex tasks.

Funneling attention towards our explanation.

Reducing redundant information from our explanations – so keeping our explanations really clear and precise.

Limiting distractions.

Not rushing our explanations – speak slowly and clearly.


This is where recorded explanations are good, because students can watch, pause and rewatch the video of your explanation, if they don’t get it first time.


3. Exploit Dual Coding


Oliver Caviglioli gives an excellent summary of the theory in this short clip. He says: Humans receive new information from the environment in either visual or verbal formats. There are others but these two are the most fundamental. Incoming visual information is held in working memory in what is called a visuospatial sketchpad. And incoming verbal information is held and processed in an auditory loop. Both are limited in storage capacity, and both are separate. These two channels are independent of each other but do form, at moments, links, or associations. When images are linked in this way to words, they enrich the encoding process — otherwise known as learning.”

This then is how Dual Coding connects to explanation. As teachers we are constantly attempting to explain ideas that are clear to us, to those that are unfamiliar with them. This is a difficult process and as a result our explanations do not always work – this becomes even more challenging during remote teaching. Improving explanation is multi-faceted, however, by combing visual and verbal input we can increase the chances of explanations hitting the mark. Some strategies for this:

Explain over images, but never text – explain new ideas verbally with a diagram that links to the concept. Don’t do this with text though, as it will result in cognitive overload.

Plan it beforehand – take some time to plan your verbal explanation and how this will link to your visuals. By doing so your explanation will be crisp and clear for students, focusing on the key learning.

Use simple visuals – the simpler the better. You want to avoid extraneous cognitive load.



4. Explicit Vocabulary Instruction


As teachers we use a hierarchy of vocabulary. Tier 1 vocabulary comprises words that are learned through everyday common language use, for example book, cat, and smile. Tier 3 words are those that are tightly associated with a specific domain and usually only acquired as the need arises. In schools, we often call Tier 3 words our subject-specific vocabulary. Finally, Tier 2 words are those that are more prevalent in written language, contain multiple meanings and are important for reading comprehension, for example measure, fortunate and tend. During remote teaching we need to continue to focus on explicitly teaching tier 2 and 3 vocabulary. If students don’t understand this key vocabulary, it will be a block to their learning. Some strategies to support this:

Take the time during your explanations to pause and explain tier 2/3 vocabulary – don’t assume students will understand.

Sentence stems – students complete a sentence stem in the chat that contains the new word. For example, I used the evidence to… .

Test sentences – provide some sentences that make sense with the vocabulary and some that do not. For example, I followed the method to cook the pie or The pie was a method. Students can respond to this in the chat.

Here is a great video on explicit vocabulary instruction.

Shaun Allison

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