AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK in the morning, a class of 15- and 16-year-olds at Harris Boys’ Academy East Dulwich in south London is grappling with one of the most confusing periods in British history. Their teacher has explained the plots that swirled around Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, and is creating impromptu quizzes on Microsoft Teams to check their knowledge. His pupils, who are working from home, all turn out to know that the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed in 1560. “Sir, come up with a harder question,” types one boy.
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In March last year, when the government told them to close for the first time, schools were taken by surprise. Some far-sighted teachers hastily handed out photocopied worksheets to keep their pupils busy, or sent them by email. But although many private schools delivered live online lessons during the first national lockdown, few state schools did. Millions of children drifted. In late May 34% of teachers told Teacher Tapp, a polling app, that at least half of their pupils appeared to be doing no work at all.
Teachers were equally surprised when schools were forced to close again on January 5th. Up until the last minute, the prime minister and his hapless education secretary, Gavin Williamson, were assuring them that they could stay open; primary schools were even told to reopen for just one day after the Christmas holidays before being ordered shut again. They will stay shut at least until mid-February, and probably for longer.
This time round they are coping with online teaching much better. Some are now so confident in their newfound digital techniques that they are beginning to think about how to keep using them even after they are allowed to open their gates.
The Sutton Trust, an education charity, finds that 54% of teachers are now holding live online lessons, up from just 4% last March. Although a live lesson is not necessarily better than setting tasks for children to work on in their own time, it breaks the monotony and keeps pupils engaged. They are responding well. Only 7% of teachers now believe that at least half of their pupils are doing no work. Parents say that nearly half of secondary-school-age children are putting in at least five hours a day—more than twice as many as last time around.
The Department for Education promised last spring that it would send laptops to all children who needed them. Many schools correctly surmised that the devices would not appear soon, and ordered their own. Ark, an academy chain with almost 29,000 pupils in mostly poor districts, has distributed 12,000 devices, less than half of them from the government. By the autumn many schools were sharpening online teaching. Although they were still open at that time, in areas with rampant covid-19 so many pupils were isolating at home that schools had to offer them something.
Nobody believes that online teaching is as good as the in-person kind. But Emma Turner, a former headteacher who now trains teachers at the Discovery Schools Academy Trust in Leicestershire, says that it has nonetheless forced teachers to adopt some good habits. Their explanations must be shorter and sharper. Knowing that some pupils are viewing their lessons on smartphones, they are learning not to clutter their slides with text—something that is usually undesirable whether you are teaching online or in-person. Ms Turner also thinks that the old-fashioned parents’ evening, when parents must leave work early and talk to teachers while squatting on tiny chairs, is due for an overhaul. Online meetings turn out to work well.
For the past few weeks, teachers in the most adept schools have been able to do something that they could not before. By setting online quizzes during lessons, they can discover instantly how many of their pupils have grasped a concept, and thus whether it is time to move on. That will end when classrooms reopen. But Matt Jones, the principal of Ark Globe Academy in London, thinks that more teachers will move to setting virtual homework. Rather than simply telling their students to read a text before the next class, they will set tests to make sure they do. Bluffing will become a little harder. ■
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This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Steep learning curve”
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