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Research School Network: Distance learning: Reflections on the EEF’s rapid evidence review

Distance learning: Reflections on the EEF’s rapid evidence review

by Dr Caroline Creaby, Research School Director

It’s been just over two working weeks since schools in the UK closed their doors to all but vulnerable students and those of key workers. In that time, a team from the EEF and Durham University has analysed the best available international evidence and meta analyses on remote learning, digesting it into clear recommendations for schools. Those in the research community will know this is a mighty quick turnaround; to call it a rapid’ review is somewhat of an understatement.

So what does it say? Ever good at communicating key messages, the EEF has distilled the research to 5 key messages for schools:

Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered

Ensuring access to technology is key, especially for disadvantaged pupils

Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes

Supporting pupils to work independently can improve learning outcomes

Different approaches to remote learning suit different types of content and pupils

So, for a little more detail behind the 5 headlines:

1) Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered

This point will ring true with all teachers. The fundamentals of quality explanation, scaffolding and feedback need to be in place for students to learn. When explaining new concepts to students in class, we’re so often guided by students’ facial cues, their questions, answers or written work as to whether our efforts in explaining new concepts have been effective. We don’t have that rich source of feedback so readily available to us right now and so emphasis on clarity of explanation, whether this is live’, recorded or written, is so important. I think the new climate has made us all reflect on how we communicate to students – from the big ideas that we’re trying to explain through to the instructions about what work to complete and how to submit it. Teachers at Sandringham use Google Classroom and since the school closures many have been using tools such as Google Meets to complement the work they are setting. The form of teacher input has varied from live teaching, pre-recorded explanations, written explanations on PPoint slides, to being available to answer questions through Google Classroom. From student survey feedback, this teacher input has been highly valued.

The outcomes of the evidence review identified that there is no clear difference in teaching in real time (synchronous teaching) vs setting work for a day or week for students to complete in their own time (asynchronous teaching). As a school, given the evidence on the importance of structure, we chose to maintain the school day and timetable for students at home – we are teaching and setting work in real time so that students continue to follow their normal timetable. The feedback from students has been really positive in this regard and overwhelmingly positive from parents. With the majority of parents trying to work from home, being confident that students are at home school’ between 8.45 and 3pm has enabled parents to continue to work and offered clearer distinctions in the day between time when they’re working vs family time. Whatever approach is taken though, synchronous or asynchronous, the point remains that the quality of the teacher input remains key.

2) Ensuring access to technology is key, particularly for disadvantaged pupils

The opportunity for students from all socio-economic backgrounds to access technology is necessary for any approach to remote learning. You will probably be concerned about the potential for the attainment gap to widen during the school closure; these concerns have been widely documented, for example by The Sutton Trust and the Children’s Commissioner and in the EEF’s rapid evidence review. The government’s announcement to supply laptops for those in Year 10 is a clear response to this. In the two days between the national announcement and school closures, I have read countless examples of schools that gathered and procured laptops or devices for students without access at home. This has been a gargantuan effort by those across many schools. The news of more access to technology from the government is certainly welcome, but I think it’s fair to say that the sector itself has moved rather more quickly on the ground. At Sandringham, we are a Bring Your Own Device school, so all students have their own devices – tablets from Years 7 – 11 and typically laptops in the sixth form. With access to hardware in place and the Google platform fully embedded with students and staff, we were therefore fortunate to be able to move to remote teaching with the technology securely in place.

3) Peer interactions can provide motivation and improve learning outcomes

It’s without question that students are missing their peers and the sense of community they enjoy at school. As we all know too, peer support in the classroom can be especially powerful for learning. But how do we harness this when teaching remotely? We need to be pragmatic and appreciate the practicalities of managing student engagement and behaviour, having clear ground rules, particularly when attempting to teach live’. Maintaining high expectations of behaviour and conduct are critical for learning to take place. But this concern must be balanced with engaging students, enabling them to ask questions and for emerging discussions to take place, where possible. However, I don’t underestimate the challenge for teachers for establishing this in the new normal’ of their classrooms. I recently interviewed one of our English teachers about how she was approaching discussions in her A Level literature class and I would recommend having a quick read here.

However, peer interactions are not just limited to discussions of course. The EEF’s evidence review helpfully highlights other powerful peer strategies including peer marking and feedback, sharing models of good work, and opportunities for live discussions of content.

Although the evidence review focuses on the role of peers with respect to learning and the classroom, at Sandringham our Performance Directors (or Heads of Year) have continued to lead assemblies and issue weekly year group bulletins via their year group Google Classrooms and these are potentially powerful tools in bringing students together’ despite being at home in order to maintain a sense of year group ethos and identity.

4) Supporting pupils to work independently can improve learning outcomes

In my 15 years as a teacher I think independent learning’ has been a priority every year in each school I have worked in. We instinctively know it’s important, the evidence in this area is particularly strong, and yet it can remain elusive. As I am sure we all find, being an independent learner, perhaps ironically, does not happen independently. Clear structure and practice is needed to enable students to become adept at independent working. Despite the challenges, the evidence is clear: independent learning and the acquisition of metacognitive skills can be taught. The evidence review points to ideas such as prompting pupils to reflect on their work or to consider the strategies they will use if they get stuck have been highlighted as valuable. The evidence also suggests that tools such as checklists can be of particular benefit to disadvantaged students. For example, the EEF have created one here that schools and families could use or adapt.

If you do have time to read more in relation to this area, the EEF’s metacognition guidance report is a real winner in my view and has been incredibly well received by teachers we have trained through the Research School.

5) Different approaches to remote learning suit different types of content and pupils

Although this recommendation may appear obvious on the surface, it shouldn’t be overlooked. In my discussions with many teachers over the past few weeks, the needs of their curriculum and what that means to pedagogy are very different. For the PRE teacher who sees her Key Stage 3 classes once a week, recaps and quizzing are particularly important whereas for the A level Media teacher who has just started coursework with his Year 12 students, personalised feedback is more critical. Levels of recap, explanation and feedback for each subject and key stage are therefore likely to vary in order to provide students with the most effective support. As the evidence review reminds us, our professional judgement is important when considering our respective approaches:

In all cases, it is important for teachers and school leaders to use their professional judgement in determining the support they provide their pupils and to monitor its impact on learning.

I would recommend looking at the one page evidence summary which can be found here. And if you are interested in the approach the research team took to produce the evidence review, you can find it here.

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