October 22, 2020, by Rupert Knight

Classroom practice in 2020: adaptation and opportunity?

In this post, Rupert Knight reflects on some of the changes to Primary classroom practice emerging this school year. Taking stock at the halfway point of this very unusual term, what are the questions that might arise as the school year proceeds?

Not the usual start to a school year…

When children and teachers returned to school in September, it was clear that they were doing so in a very new educational environment. The DfE’s guidance was clear that this would be a full-time return for all pupils in all year groups, albeit with many adaptations, including minimal mixing between groups, the ‘filling of gaps in core knowledge’ and changes relating to subjects like music, dance and drama. Many of the news stories around the return to school have highlighted adjusting to the potential constraints around issues such as distancing, use of resources and forward-facing desks or absences due to lack of testing for teachers.

Amidst these school-level adjustments, individual teachers have also begun to adapt to their pedagogical approach in the classroom. Pedagogy, as the act of teaching, is often a highly personal part of a teacher’s professional identity. It is underpinned, as Robin Alexander has put it, by a complex set of ideas and values that concern what is to be taught, to whom and how. An individual’s professional autonomy in this respect is also, however, always shaped by wider contexts of schools, education policy and society. This school year is a significant moment, as constraints arising from Covid safety measures are now layering another set of influences onto teachers’ pedagogical decisions.

Changes to classroom practice

I have been hearing from teachers in our local schools about how school life has changed. More specifically, I have been interested in how changes born of necessity have affected pedagogy at an individual classroom level. These contingent developments sometimes lead to unexpected effects and indeed a few teachers mentioned becoming ‘better’ at teaching through, for example, the more thoughtful use of strategies and resources or a greater awareness of children’s needs. Their responses – while all interconnected – seem to coalesce around three main changes:

1. A greater emphasis on teacher-led instruction from the front of the classroom, with little scope for group work. This shift has meant a more prominent role for teacher explanation and modelling (see our previous blog on modelling). In turn, this has sometimes been associated with increased exploration and use of visualisers, iPads, virtual learning platforms and other forms of technology allowing interaction, portfolio-building and a sense of community at a distance. For some teachers, being at the front with less mingling has also offered a clearer overview of the whole class now that they are not drawn to individuals or groups. Others also mentioned paring back in various ways: slowing down and taking the time to go into more depth on fewer key ideas or making more careful choices of concrete resources now that their distribution and use was more complicated.

2. Adapting approaches by getting to know the class in new ways. Sometimes this has arisen from new arrangements such as splitting classes into smaller groups or collecting and dropping off children at the school gate, leading to different interactions with parents. Some teachers have mentioned discovering how resourceful pupils can be when working in new ways, whether taking responsibility for their own materials or showing hidden attributes through more outdoor learning. The lack of opportunity for flexible groupings has also meant extra attention given to fixed seating plans within the classroom – more often a concern of Secondary teachers – whether on the basis of social groups or attainment levels. Most striking of all seems to be the heightened awareness of children’s very diverse home circumstances, diversity sometimes brought to the fore during the time away from schools and alluded to by the Children’s Commissioner.

3. A new approach to feedback. Probably the most consistent message about current practices has been the shift away from written marking towards different modes of feedback. Use of verbal and whole class feedback, as well as more peer or self-assessment, has provided timelier – and arguably more impactful – guidance. This aligns with the move in this direction reflected in the reports in 2016 from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group.

Taking a step back: revisiting principles for practice

Many aspects of current change in the classroom are pragmatic adjustments to new circumstances and sustaining any degree of normality for learners over recent weeks represents a considerable achievement. However, with no immediate change in sight and as these new ways of working become more established, it may be useful to re-evaluate them in light of some evidence-informed principles for practice. There are many potential touchstones we could use, but a recent one that distils a wide range of evidence into a small number of key ideas is the work of Robert Coe and colleagues published this year in the form of the Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review.

Coe’s review sets out to guide teachers towards aspects of practice that are most likely to help children learn more. While we might pause and consider the complexities of what is meant by ‘learning more’, the review nevertheless helpfully suggests four broad areas of focus for teachers’ attention (each broken into various elements): understanding content; creating a supportive environment; maximising opportunity to learn and activating hard thinking.

For each of these dimensions, I have suggested two questions that might prompt some reflection on the currently emerging practices mentioned above.

Understanding content

Based on your understanding of subject matter and how it is learned in this age group:

– Which aspects of curriculum content are now to be prioritised and how will these themes be sequenced?

– How will the use of models, representations and resources need to be adapted to account for a ‘teaching from the front’ approach?

Creating a supportive environment

In order to build trust and respect in the classroom:

– How can positive relationships be fostered between all peers in the classroom at a time of physical distancing and more rigid seating layouts?

– How might an increased awareness of pupils’ diverse home backgrounds help to tailor provision for individuals within the class?

Maximising opportunity to learn

In your management of the classroom:

– What new routines concerning the use of resources and classroom space might be important?

– If behaviour for learning – rather than discipline for its own sake – is the goal of your classroom, how might pupils’ relationships with themselves, others and the curriculum have changed this term in light of new routines at school?
(for a summary of the behaviour for learning model, see this chapter by Hilary Smith)

Activating hard thinking

As you organise content, activities and interactions:

– What are the implications of having to teach more frequently from the front of the room for the way you use explanations, questioning and modelling?

– If feedback is more frequently conveyed verbally and at the point of learning, how does this affect the focus and content of that feedback? Is it more likely, for example, to shift towards process as well as product?

As well as hinting at possibilities, all of these questions simultaneously reflect challenges to be wrestled with. Indeed, in a recent publication by Michael Fullan and colleagues, three phases associated with the pandemic are identified:

1. Disruption (school closures)

2. Transition (schools re-opening)

3. Re-imagining (moving forwards)

No doubt, half a term in, we are still very much at the transition stage but, amidst the all of the difficulties, new opportunities may emerge. It would be great to hear whether the experiences this term so far have changed your thinking going forwards.

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