Research School Network: Responsive Teaching in Turbulent Times With students regularly in and out of lessons, how can we continue to effectively judge their strengths and weaknesses?

Responsive Teaching in Turbulent Times

With students regularly in and out of lessons, how can we continue to effectively judge their strengths and weaknesses?

by Durrington Research School
on the

Like many people, I don’t really go in for new year’s resolutions. However, I’m writing a blog in the first week of January and talking about a change that teachers might make to their practice, so perhaps this year will be the exception.

Teachers across the country have, more than ever, been dealing with the reality of students constantly appearing and then disappearing from their classrooms in the past two years. This is always a reality of teaching so in some ways nothing new there. However, the pandemic has increased the prevalence and students missing chunks of learning and then having to pick up the threads on their return. With the current state of the national picture and the Omicron variant, we are likely to see this as an increasingly problematic reality for teachers over the coming term. Students will be off, miss several lessons per subject in secondary or a week or so of learning in primary, and then be back. Some mitigation of this lost learning will be there in terms of online tasks done independently, but we know this will be sporadic and work better for some than others.

What then can teachers do once a student is back with them? Firstly, the point to recognise is they cannot wave the learning wand and solve the problem. The situation is imperfect and they would be looking to minimise the negative impact rather than remove it altogether. Probably the best bet could be summarised as responsive teaching. Much has been written in this area, and it combines several fields of research evidence, most particularly cognitive science and formative assessment. For those wishing to delve further into the principles of responsive teaching a book carrying the same title was written by Harry Fletcher-Wood a few years ago.

It is a catch-all term and a simplistic definition of it carries the danger of missing the point and it is likely to narrow what it refers to, to the point that the concept is lost. However, for the purposes of this blog I will attempt a definition as: the process of teachers making frequent checks of knowledge, understanding, misunderstanding and thinking while teaching, and then (crucially) doing something with the information they uncover. As Dylan William (2006) emphasises,​‘if you’re not using the evidence to do something that you couldn’t have done without the evidence, you are not doing formative assessment.’ For formative assessment read responsive teaching and vice versa.

This is something teachers have always done to some extent intuitively and is always important, not just in turbulent times. However, the reality I described above has upped the importance of responsive teaching being at the forefront of teachers minds, particularly for those students with the most potted attendance.

What then does responsive teaching as a mitigation for the Covid attendance merry-go-round look like? Here are some practical suggestions for what teachers could do:

  • Uncover thinking: We learn in the context of what we already know. Therefore, if a student has missed a series of lessons and then is taught new content without the context of the preceding lessons, the chances are they will misunderstand some or much of what is being taught. Therefore, teachers must seek to uncover the thinking that is going on. Explanation needs to be punctuated with questioning and when referring back to a previously taught concept, check that it is deeply understood by asking multiple elaborative questions.
  • Diagnostic questions: These are questions designed to uncover common misconceptions and supply teachers with immediate feedback as to whether students have understood something well enough to move on. As Dylan Wiliam writes:​“For the purpose of rapid assessment of student learning…a single well-chosen question can provide enough information to direct instruction in real-time, provided the item is chosen carefully”. Using these will help teachers to uncover both whether a class or individuals are ready for the next chunk of the curriculum. For more detail, you can read this blog published on our site in November.
  • Check books: Many schools have moved away from generic marking policies that enforce written feedback on classwork. There are sound evidence-based reasons for these decisions informed by documents such as the EEF’s A Marked Improvement? and I would include our school as one of them. However, one of the unintended consequences of this may be that we spend less time looking at the physical output of our students. Spending 20 minutes flicking through a set of books, and making a few notes on common misconceptions or poorly executed tasks can help teachers see where the gaps are and inform short and medium term planning.
  • Big picture re-caps: Where you have a class where several students have missed different chunks it is important to keep placing the learning in its overall context. Pausing to recap learning is a good way of doing this. For example, a history teacher could pause and, starting with blank timeline, jointly construct a completed version using the events covered in the previous 5 or 6 lessons. This would allow students to plug some of the gaps, albeit to a limited extent, that they may have from missing some lessons. To make this more responsive, having finished the tasks students could highlight which events their knowledge is weakest on, allow the teacher to scan books and recognise which need more in-depth re-capping.
  • Mini whiteboards: As explained by Deb Friis in her blog just before the break, these can be (when used correctly) an excellent aid to support responsive teaching. Where we have a class of students who have missed different chunks at different times, this can be a time efficient way for the teacher to see where the gaps are. There are of course potential drawbacks to using them as Deb refers to in her blog, but many of these are connected to routines and organisation.
  • Use concrete examples: Not strictly responsive teaching, but included as a way of mitigating the negative effective of multiple students having missed several lessons. When teaching new content use lots of commonly understood analogies or metaphors to allow all students to make sense of the new information. By doing so you give the students who were missing for preceding lessons and therefore have less well developed schemata on the topic, a greater chance of assimilating the new information.

We all understand that teaching during this particular Spring term is going to be challenging for all sorts of reasons. Certainly one helpful response for me to focus my energies into where the solutions might be to unpick some of the problems that will undoubtedly crop up. We can’t help that many of our students will miss chunks, but we can do our best to uncover the misconceptions that this missed time creates. Perhaps not a resolution, but close.

Chris Runeckles

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