Metacognition, remote learning and support for parents

Christabel Shepherd, NACE Associate and Trustee, and Executive Headteacher of Bradford’s Copthorne and Holybrook Primary Schools

Over the past few months, I have learnt a great deal about myself and, more importantly, about the conditions which are central to the effective education of the children in our schools.

In the two primary schools that I lead, home-learning during this crisis has taken two forms: printed packs of differentiated work for the core and wider curriculum (a mixture of practise, retrieval and application, as well as some new learning); and remote learning via the various sites and activities to which we have directed children (these include Mathletics, Times Tables Rockstars, White Rose Maths Hub, Accelerated Reader etc.). All of this has been supported with regular telephone check-ins with pupils and their parents/carers. The results in terms of pupil engagement have been mixed and, in turn, the impact on pupil progress is difficult to measure.

All good teachers know their children. They can spot immediately when a child has “zoned out”; one whose stress levels are increasing because they clearly don’t understand; the more able learner who is afraid to put pen to paper for fear of the work being incorrect or imperfect; or the student who is frustrated or bored due to insufficient challenge.

When children are at home, we are not there to pick up on these signals and support them appropriately, and it is not easy to spot these signs on a computer screen. Without this, it is more difficult to identify misconceptions and address them effectively and before they become ingrained; it is nigh on impossible to remind children to think back to the strategies they have been taught in order to choose the most effective one or to think about which “learning muscles” they will need to use for a task; it is much harder to encourage children to attempt a challenge and face possible failure without the culture of supported risk that we have so skilfully developed in our classrooms. Never has the need for that human interaction between teachers and pupils been so stark.

So, what can we do now to mitigate this and contingency plan for the future?

Metacognition and self-regulation

For months prior to the COVID-19 crisis, metacognition and self-regulation strategies had started to become a key focus for many schools. Much of what many excellent teachers already do by default has been given a name and its importance highlighted by the findings of evidence-based research. This has been widely shared through, for example, the work of the EEF, with more and more teachers beginning to see and understand the benefits of building these strategies into their everyday work.

Had this been going on for longer and such learning behaviours been entrenched in our children, I feel that the negative effects of lockdown would have been lessened. As it is, I feel that much more work needs to be done in this area. Many of our learners – especially in primary schools – are only at the start of their “learning how to learn” journey, so do not yet understand or have embedded the key metacognitive or self-regulation skills, nor in turn the levels of intrinsic motivation to enable them to deal effectively with home learning. Whereas at school, we would have been praising children for thinking about and then using appropriate strategies, there is concern that – in many homes – children will be being praised purely for task completion rather than the way it was approached and their metacognitive strategies.

This has strengthened my view that the need for children to be taught metacognitive and self-regulation strategies should be made an even higher priority. By the way, I’m not talking about special “learning how to learn” slots in the timetable; I’m talking about those strategies being central to our pedagogy in every lesson. Although many teachers do this naturally, I believe that we must all make a conscious decision to do this, directly teaching and modelling those learning behaviours through our own practice and daily interactions.

At this point, I would like to mention parents. They are a piece of the metacognitive puzzle I feel is currently being overlooked. We engage them in workshops to help them support their child’s subject-specific learning, yet it is rare to hear of a school where work is being done to support parents’ understanding in this area in order to help make them real partners in their child’s learning. If we value metacognition for our pupils, then parents must be made partners in this too.

Remote learning

This has been on my mind a great deal. As we know, many children and their families do not have access to the internet, suitable devices, or both. However, where such provision is in place, I feel we can do better than the scattergun approach currently in place in some schools by considering the inclusion of some key features/approaches:

  • Introduce the lesson or theme by speaking directly to all the children in the class via a web-based platform such as Teams, Zoom, Google Classroom etc. During this short meeting, the teacher does a general check-in with everyone and maybe even a quick starter with children holding up their answers on whiteboards. The teacher then sets the learning task – and this has to be very carefully considered.
  • As part of this, the children are directed to a short, explanatory video such as those provided by the White Rose Maths Hub, Khan Academy etc. Whatever source is chosen, the key is to find examples where there is simplicity in terms of format and clarity of explanation, where children have the chance to practise what is being introduced, pause, review and then continue with the explanation. The production should not be at the expense of the quality of exposition. Teachers may even wish to make their own explanatory videos; these do not need to be “all singing, all dancing”, but must adhere to the school’s safeguarding policy.
  • A specified time is then provided for the children to work on the set task. During this time the teacher is still available online so that pupils can ask for help or guidance.
  • At the end of the time, the children return to the screen in – as necessary – smaller groups, to share what they have done and get instant feedback from the teacher. This Assessment for Learning is key as it allows for any misconceptions to be addressed quickly. Once this has been done, the next lesson can be in the form of the opportunity to practice and apply this learning through an online portal such as Mathletics, Learning By Questions, HegartyMaths etc., before the next live lesson is introduced.

There has been some scaremongering about not delivering live lessons remotely as it may leave teachers at risk of malicious allegations. Aren’t teachers just as much at risk of this in the classroom each day? In most instances remote learning allows us to record the session so that there is a clear log of what has taken place. Please do not think from this that I am saying we should deliver live lessons without careful consideration; but I do think that some remote contact between teacher and learners is essential.

Parents and carers

During this crisis, I have been metaphorically slapped in the face by the importance of parents and carers. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve always known they were important and I have always been proactive about ensuring – through the provision of workshops, letters home and open events – that they were able to support their children with homework. However, the notion of whether parents were in a position to “go it alone” when it comes to educating their children has never really been a consideration. This has now changed and it is something that is polarising concerns around the likely widening of the gap caused by social disadvantage.

This has made me realise that our approach towards parental engagement needs to change. This is currently still shaping up in my mind but I think we need to be far more strategic and passionate.

Initially, on a practical level, in a similar way that we do for pupils, we need to either prepare or signpost explanatory clips for parents covering each area of the curriculum so they have a resource available for reference and to help them feel more confident when home-educating. We have done this in the past for areas such as guided reading, but I think we need to go much further.

We will need to look, too, at how clearly and to what degree we share with parents our aspirations for their children. Has this been merely a paper exercise in the past, or part of the school’s mantra, rolled out for assemblies and on special occasions? Or is the heart of the school’s vision and ethos shared with passion, and its core explained? Do staff members have the opportunity to be open and honest about their own life and education journey to this point so that parents and children understand that education opens the doors of opportunity and helps to provide children with the cultural capital they need to succeed? Are we honest and open about the real difference each stage of a child’s education makes to their future, rather than making sweeping generalisations about this to parents? Have we truly explained, for example, why synthetic phonics and reading are so important? How often do we hold small discussion groups for parents, where we can drill down into the importance of education and their role in this?

These questions need to be posed to and explored by the whole school community in order for us to find the best way forward and ensure our reflections and learning from the lockdown period are put to good use.

On a personal level, lockdown has taught me the value of making time for both reflection and my own professional development. I have taken the opportunity to address this and as a result I see what I have been missing.

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