Research School Network: Closing the COVID gap How best, as teachers can we close the gaps COVID-19 has created in our classrooms? by Jodie Powers from JTHS

Closing the COVID gap

How best, as teachers can we close the gaps COVID-19 has created in our classrooms? by Jodie Powers from JTHS

by Staffordshire Research School
on the

Jodie Powers is a Middle Leader at John Taylor High School (home of the Staffordshire Research School) and SCITT lead for Geography at the National Forest Teaching School. You can follow her and her work at @MissPowers_Geog

Unprecedented times”: two words which are repeatedly used – as shorthand for the societal upheaval brought about by COVID-19, and the consequential lockdown and social distancing measures. One of the most fundamental changes experienced by households in recent weeks is the closure of schools. UNESCO estimate that, globally, 1.5 billion school-age children have been deprived of a classroom education since the onset of COVID-19. For teachers, the closure of schools has posed a host of challenges, but the gradual re-opening of schools is likely to be no less problematic. When, if at all, will we return to the old normal”? Will there be yet more changes to the examination system? Will ITT students be expected to launch themselves into full-time teaching in September, despite their training year having been cut short?These are just a few of the vast array of questions that we will be required to answer in the coming months.

This week EEF has recently published its rapid evidence assessment on the impact of the school closures on students. Their overwhelming conclusion is that the closures are likely to reverse progress made in narrowing the attainment gap in the last decade. Perhaps, then, the most important question posed by the re-opening of schools is this: what can teachers do to bridge the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others, which has only been widened by COVID-19?

'closures are likely to reverse progress made in narrowing the attainment gap in the last decade.'

Positive relationships:

Whilst we have interacted with students via email, Zoom and/​or Microsoft Teams, remote learning can never be an adequate replacement for classroom-based learning. Online we can’t take social cues from students about their understanding of the content, peer over their shoulder to correct errors or develop depth in understanding, nor can we pick up on their feelings. When students return to school, it will be vital to reinforce relationships between teachers and students. Doing so will, firstly, help students regain confidence and enjoyment in learning, and, secondly, will encourage students to put behind them the stresses and strains of living in lockdown. Inevitably, some of our students will have experienced bereavement, and all of them will be sorely deprived of social interaction with their friends and peers. Take time to get to know your students for the first time or once again. The 2 x 10 strategy from the EEF’s Improving Behaviour in Schools Guidance report (p30) offers a simple and personal approach for reconnecting. 

Diagnosing misconceptions and gaps in learning:

Whilst many of us have spent hours scaffolding and modelling remote learning resources, they are simply not as effective as face-to-face teaching. Our second key focus should therefore be on identifying student’s misconceptions or knowledge gaps. An effective way to do this is through retrieval practice. The diagnosis of these gaps and misconceptions needs to be subtle: students will be facing enough stressors as it is, without the impression that they have fallen behind being reinforced in every lesson. Therefore, announcing to students that they’ll have a test in October on everything they covered the previous year, is probably not the best way to diagnose these gaps or begin the process of re-building student confidence. After the gaps and misconceptions have been subtly identified, future planning and consolidation activities can be targeted at rectifying them, reinforcing retrieval practice’s primary use as a teaching tool over an assessment tool.

Setting effective homework:

The third key element is effective homework. The EEF have indicated that effective homework can add up to five additional months of progress at secondary level and two additional months at primary. Homework has to assist students in progressing. It is not enough to ask students to revisit topics which have been taught remotely at home. In fact, doing so will inevitably reinforce gaps and misconceptions. The use of low-stakes quizzing or consolidation activities such as concept maps can be used to ascertain gaps, or students could be asked to RAG rate their understanding of the different elements of a topic. Not only can these quizzes be highly effective when structured well, but as they are also self-marking, you will be able to manage your workload and that of your team. Where possible, make use of technology such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Forms, to identify knowledge gaps through homework, and use the results to inform your retrieval practice and starting point for teaching at the start of the next lesson.

Developing self-regulation and metacognitive skills: 

Finally, even though we may have been out of the classroom for a long time, we have to remember that we are the experts. Our subject knowledge is our strength. We are best placed to show students how to be effective learners and how to be successful in our subject, overcoming the challenges they will inevitably face.

Metacog recommendations

The EEF’s Metacognition and Self-Regulation summary of recommendations shows us that we need to be explicit as experts in our rationale for utilising strategies such as retrieval practice as well as modelling our thinking in order to help students develop their metacognitive skills, which allows students to become more successful learners as they understand more about how they learn. Furthermore, linking back to the previous point, homework can also incorporate metacognitive activities, such as modelling how to complete exam questions (see the series of blog posts by Durrington Research School: : You can also access free resources for parents in supporting home learning and metacognition from the Staffordshire Research School here.

Summary diagram 200605 112149

All of the old challenges we face as a profession will remain, not least adjusting the curriculum yet again. However, we must remember, first and foremost, that we are classroom practitioners, regardless of our position in the school hierarchy, and that the return to classroom-based learning is a good thing. We entered the profession to help the next generation succeed in our subjects and their education. Consequently, ensuring our classroom practice is the best it possibly can be is ultimately the only way to close the attainment gap that COVID-19 has amplified.

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