Tables in the classroom good. Tables facing the front better

 

You see it all the time, some edutweeters responding to an edutwitter discussion about how to teach with a self-defined single model version of teaching: ‘All desks facing the front, teacher at the front.’

And let me start by saying that there is a lot of truth in that particular model. If I have them in groups and then ask them to listen whilst I am giving instructions or doing a similar teacher led activity then I’m just asking for them to not pay attention. You can call it whatever you want, but sometimes it really does work if I have them all facing me when I am teaching.

However, once I’ve completed that learning event and moved on, then I need to consider what the best room layout is for the next learning event. I can’t have one model of desk layout always employed regardless of the activity.  If I was then doing an activity with group work, allocating different roles and they had to work effectively as a team, then I don’t want all the desks giving them physical barriers to represent their internal ones. They are going to have to learn how to collaborate because that’s pretty much what it means to be a citizen in a society – in work, rest and play. That’s why PISA are testing it and why we are good at it. Covid19 will naturally affect this, but the reality is that we will slowly return to working collaboratively in groups within our classrooms.

So, I want to move the desks. Sometimes I move the desks into group tables. Sometimes, I reduce the number the tables in play by only giving a group a single table around which they have to sit. More room for the sitting part & my circulation and more intimacy for the group work – there must not be hiding room in good group work. Too often, we give them a tiny working area for close text or number analysis sat on an island of tables and mini-cliques can quickly emerge which render the group work a poor vehicle for learning. And then here is the important part, if I then moved to another teacher-led learning event I would move the tables again. Only, I would not do this personally – the pupils would be trained to move those tables on my direction, lift – not drag, in a display of co-ordinated table movement, rather like when one turns the dial on a prism viewfinder. I like teaching with plural models of teaching and I like teaching with plural models of desk layouts.

My tables are moved then, habitually, to suit the activity. Whole room clearance for drama pedagogy, Socratic questioning circles, work performance review, partial clearance for group activities and then back to formal rows for teacher-led and the opening and closing of my lesson. It sounds a lot, but in reality there might be 2-3 minor movements in a single lesson. Each movement of tables is an aesthetic display of coordinated memorised room shaping by the pupils. Once I had trained them into creating the half dozen table layout shapes I employed over the year they had no problem in creating them at speed. If you buy into Sweller’s cognitive load like many do, then you should be buying into creating the optimum environment for each activity in your room, each and every time without any disruption. You should also be thinking about the limitations for any model of education in any particular situation with any group of people in a place of education. And you should be thinking about the limitations of always advocating a single model of teaching or education to others. Dichotomy in Edutwitter is a real issue and a red herring. You reduce teacher agency with educational dichotomies. Let well trained teachers choose how to teach each unique class that they have.

This plural approach to teaching models is the real demonstration of how teachers teach – adapting their classrooms for maximum learning.

 

 

 

Lockdown Learning for Schools in September

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When the lockdown came for us in teacher education here at UOB towers, it was like we had been building up to this, technologically, for some time. Little did we realise it, but the past two years that we had been piloting webinars, developing online teaching pedagogies and moving face to face delivery to online delivery were going to become very relevant. The reason we were developing this was quite simple: mentors having to drive a long distance to mentor development face to face sessions were delighted to sit and have a webinar from home instead with a cup of tea beside them and with no commuting. We had just started to experiment using the flexibilities offered by this technology with some of our trainees when the university shut its doors for COVID19 and our entire programme, overnight, moved online. The same content got taught at the time it was scheduled. Live and exceptionally well attended webinars replaced face to face sessions and it was as seamless as switch as you could imagine. From the trainees’ end, this was a bit of a shock (they relied on the physical library more than I thought), but to their credit they have been very resilient despite the challenges of losing physical interaction with their peers and tutors as well as a change in approach to teaching. No matter what we try to do as tutors, we cannot replicate the live synchronous and emotive experience of learning that happened in the physical classroom (I am from the reader response school of thought) and I think we all see the online version as an inferior substitute to the real thing. Though, to be fair to online live webinars, there are some sessions which have proved to better suited to webinars – ‘preparation for assignment’ type seminars where thinking time, intense question and answer sessions and the ability to record everything have proved to be a superior model.

We are fortunate in our School of Teacher Education to have well designed Virtual Learning Environment technology underpinning our delivery. Technology that was designed and used to deliver taught and assessed units within courses (as opposed to Zoom etc., being designed for business). The students, as I said, overnight, have remained enrolled in units, enrolled on courses and ‘attending’ designated sessions as timetabled. The staff are teaching as much as they ever were and apart from some tricky assessment modifications we’ve by and large ensured that the trainees have had a smooth transition in terms of academic input. This shows that we are benefiting from the level of technological infrastructure in homes, with trainees and with the university. Indeed, business and charities are in a similar position – the flexibility of technology has enabled us all to deploy social distancing as a strategy to push back against the R rate.

Thinking about schools now, it is clear that the way forward will be an adherence to the current rule no unnecessary close social interactions. If you can work from home or learn from home using the flexibility of technology you should and alternatively if you can run your business or attend somewhere with social distancing then you can do that. That’s the way the UK has chosen to keep R down (there are other models: Sweden, South Korea and so forth). Some people have to go to a workplace and more people will go back to a workplace as they open up with social distancing in place, but some people can continue to work from home. The same doesn’t quite apply to pupils in schools. Most pupils will have to go to school and be taught via traditional pedagogies by teachers in face to face sessions for some of the time if not all of the time. In the classrooms, social distancing  can and will have to be practiced (due to smaller numbers in school through rota systems). Some pupils will learn online effectively, because they have the environment and technology to do so. Some pupils who could stay at home will go to school because they don’t have the learning environment to learn from home. Those pupils who can learn from home will be taught by teachers using online pedagogies to supplement the face to face teaching. Teachers and schools from September will need to be able to teach face to face and to teach online. What teachers and schools are doing, on behalf of the government, is deploying the flexibility offered by technology to reduce social interactions. It could be that once the R rate comes down and test and trace becomes much better in terms of its success rate that the government will switch to an approach where social interaction is not so heavily repressed, but until we see the infection rate come down and the test and trace capacity increase we have to think about logistics based on current approaches.

My job as a course leader of teacher education is to ensure that the teachers coming in can teach online as well as face to face. We are already doing this for the outgoing cohort. They would normally have run a face to face ResearchEd style conference to finish the course. This year, they will run that conference as an online conference. Live webinars will replace the keynotes and the breakout presentations. They will put on an entire day of live webinar based learning for each other. We are already looking to enhance next year’s cohort’s knowledge of TEAMS and so forth as part of our planning.

When I look to the future (as someone who has written frequently about technology in education), I can see that blended learning is about to become a reality for everyone. You can have social distancing in schools because you must – for those who will attend school. You can have live teaching online because you must – for those who can study from home for some of the time. I know that live webinars are not as good as face to face sessions, but that’s not the important part right now. What’s important is to keep unnecessary social interactions to a minimum whilst maximising safeguarding and education.  There will be regional variations as well – schools and parents in an area seeing a rise in transmission could expect to be placed back on extensive lockdown. Teachers will be, for next year at least, waiting for the COVID19 phone call as opposed to the OFSTED call.

Rosenblatt’s Principles of Instruction

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You might be familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, but are you are aware that the similarly named Rosenblatt also had principles of instruction some 60 years earlier? In the interest of revisiting educational history, Rosenblatt’s principles are as interesting to review as Rosenshine’s.

To start with, Louise Rosenblatt didn’t collect her own principles together. They were spread out amongst her seminal work on transactional theories of literature and Probst put them together. Indeed her most famous text from 1938, Literature as Exploration, is still in print . These principles emanate from the teaching of English (she is best known for the concept of ‘Reader Response’), but the principles can also be explored through the lens of other subjects by considering the notions of epistemic curiosity (Litman, 2008). The main principle to note here is that there is an element of the learning that cannot be placed in a knowledge organiser and cannot be directly instructed for. In English we refer to it as reader response. The idea that every person’s experience of the text is unique. The text sits alone until a reader comes along and consumes it. In doing so, they have an experience. That experience then makes up part of the meaning of the text. So, let’s look at the Rosenblatt’s principles of instruction as put together by Probst (1987).

Thus, you can see how it contributes to contemporary debates over knowledge, “knowledge…is not something to be found, not something the teacher can give to the student…”. Here, I don’t mean that one cannot organise and plan knowledge for lessons – planning and organising knowledge ahead of a lesson is a very good approach to teaching. I am saying that not all knowledge can be organised and planned for in lessons. For English, this is fairly well enshrined in our subject. Each student, when writing about literature, will offer a personal response over and above those efferent aspects of the text that the teacher can plan and teach to the student. It’s not enough, in English, for the student to learn about characters, plots, contexts and themes in literature: they must also personally respond to it. Take the recent real life story about Lord of the Flies – it makes people question their response to the original text. Do humans forever have a touch of the animal within them? Or is it not so inevitable? Our personal response when we read the text forms part of the meaning of the text. And further, that meaning changes as we change and the world changes.

The next step I want to take this to is as a lens through which to look at other subjects. Litman writes extensively about epistemic curiosity. Both the desire to learn more about something one is passionate about and also the desire to fill a perceived gap in knowledge. When learning within a subject, experiences happen. These experiences also feed into epistemic curiosity. The reader response can therefore be applied to other aspects of the curriculum. When learning about the horrors of slavery or the civil rights era, many of us felt compelled to know more. Sometimes, as Litman points out, that compelling need is because we feel a deficit of knowledge. We feel it is important to know more about this topic. It drives our own self-regulated learning with the metacognitive engine running at full speed. On other occasions, a teacher might expose you to a topic and you find it compelling. I still recall the experience of being taught the Norfolk crop rotation method from medieval history in year 9 and deciding I wanted to find out more – independently.

The concepts behind Rosenblatt’s principles of instruction therefore play an important part in a teacher’s planning. When is this going to happen in the lesson? How can we use discussion to facilitate this ‘experience’ and response. It’s not enough to learn that knowledge which we have planned for them to learn. There is more – the experience of learning that knowledge and then further: what is that experience like? By this, I don’t mean gimmicky things which makes a lesson ‘interesting’ – I’m on record as saying our subjects are interesting in their own rights. But that ‘interesting’ actually means it feeds into curiosity. What we want to achieve in our lessons is an experience where the students themselves find our subject interesting and that bits of our subject knowledge are attached to these experiences of curiosity.

I’m interested to know how other subjects approach this unique idea of the triangulation between the student, the knowledge and the experience. I have written before that knowledge alone is insufficient (see our article on Disposable Knowledge). When learning knowledge, students will have an experience of learning that knowledge and that experience becomes part of the knowledge. We can’t say in advance what that experience will be, but it is something we can plan for and even look to enhance.