Online learning: a reflection

by Cordelia Myers (April 2020)

Teachers are used to change. The way schools have adapted to the current crisis is breathtaking. Think back three weeks ago when there were only vague whispers of a shutdown and now we are confined to our homes, allowed out just once a day. Schools did not pause to take a breath. Without hesitation we have set up online learning with schedules for the day, directed students to appropriate websites, received instructions on how to monitor “attendance”, offer feedback, make adjustments to adhere to new child protection guidance .. it goes on.

Having now had two weeks of this I think it is worth pausing to reflect. How is it working out?

In some cases students are settling down and working through the tasks each day. Some seem to be struggling and others are finding it boring. Some are finding the work too easy. Some are finding it too difficult. You may enjoy this video if you haven’t seen it. To me, it speaks volumes about family life and the new challenges (especially the first minute) and then the value of working together.

Teachers are in very different places: some are bored without their packed timetable and piles of marking. Others are exhausted: caring for children at home, teaching their own children, setting work and monitoring it is virtually impossible. Personally, I think it is impossible, but teachers are amazing. Many of us feel very frightened which saps energy and creativity.

Is the work we are setting being effective in developing students’ understanding and love for mathematics? Somehow, I doubt it (and that’s not a surprise given the circumstances). I suppose the key question is: can we do better both for teachers and students?

There are lots of things that worry me if we continue as we have started.

The mental health of all of us is an issue. Serious work overload isn’t going to help.

Neither is work for students that is boring or too difficult or just too routine. A cycle of video followed by questions will soon lack interest. I’m troubled that possibly misconceptions are being embedded. We believe (erroneously I think) that if students watch the video they will master the topic. It feels to me a bit like watching Bake Off. The cooks take the ingredients and somehow create a wonder. It never works quite like that for me. I suspect there are lots of students who feel like that about their maths. (BTW, I think the video websites are fantastic. I don’t know what we would have done without them. But they are not an alternative to a teacher. They complement and supplement teaching but were never intended to be the sole learning tool.)

Could we do better?

Many families are struggling to help their children and to manage the new regime. Could we provide opportunities which will involve more of the family on a collaborative task? A puzzle to solve together? Dice games? Card games? Board games? A mathematical escape room? An engineering project (what else are we going to do with all those loo rolls?)? All those amazing nrich or Wild maths tasks that we never have time to do? These can build mathematical thinking skills, logic and reasoning, something we are focused on and committed to developing.

I’m not brave enough to suggest we abandon our curriculum but could we intersperse it with activities such as these? A week of videos and a week of alternative activities away from the screen. If it needs to be monitored perhaps a photo would do?

This is a terrible but (thankfully) unique time in our lives. Can we build memories for families of working together on mathematical tasks? Can we, just maybe, change the nation’s view of maths by facilitating exciting activities? We have an opportunity; I think it is worth pondering over.