'Life has changed dramatically': teaching under lockdown

By Philip Colligan. Posted

We asked teachers what their lives have been like over the past few months, and they shared stories of determined support for their students

Introduction by Philip Colligan

In just a few short weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound impact on every aspect of life, not least education. With 1.2 billion young people affected by the closure of schools, teachers have joined health and care workers, and the many others who are on the front line of the fight against the virus.

As Chair of Governors at a state school here in Cambridge, I’ve seen first-hand the immense pressure that schools and teachers are under. The abrupt transition to emergency remote teaching, caring for the most vulnerable students, supporting families who are experiencing the health and economic devastation wrought by the virus, and doing all of this while looking after themselves and their loved ones. The word heroic doesn’t feel nearly sufficient to describe the efforts of teachers all over the world.

At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we wanted to learn about how different schools have responded: what’s working, what are the challenges, and crucially, what is happening to computing education. We spoke to teachers at primary schools, secondary schools, and further education colleges. Most were based in the UK, with a few in India and the USA.

Even from this small collection of interviews, we saw incredible innovation and resilience, coupled with a determination to ensure that all young people could continue learning during the lockdown.

Most of the teachers that we spoke to were specialists in computing. Their expertise with technology has put them at centre stage, with many stepping into leadership roles, supporting the rapid roll-out of online learning and providing invaluable support to colleagues and students alike. We hope that this leads to schools giving greater priority to computing education. Digital technologies are keeping the world connected and working. Equipping all young people with the ability to harness the power of computing has never been more vital.

We’ve also seen profound challenges. The digital divide has never been more apparent. Far too many young people lack access to a computer for learning at home. This is a problem that can be fixed at a cost that is trivial compared to the long-term economic impact of the educational disadvantage that it causes.

But we’re also hearing first-hand how educational disadvantage isn’t just about access to technology. Many families are struggling to support home learning, whether because of the condition of their housing, their work or caring responsibilities, or the struggle to put food on the table. Teachers have responded compassionately, offering practical support where it’s needed most, and planning now for how they will help students catch up when schools reopen.

We know that school closures disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged students. If we are going to reduce the long-term economic and social impact of the virus, there needs to be a huge global effort to invest in addressing the educational impact that it has caused.

As we start to figure out what a post-lockdown world might look like, the only thing that feels certain is we are facing a long period of disruption to formal education. We need to find new ways to combine online learning, classroom and remote teaching, mentoring, and non-formal learning experiences, to ensure that all young people, whatever their backgrounds, are able to thrive and fulfil their potential. The stories we’ve heard from these educators give me hope that we can, but they will need the support of government, industry, and non-profits. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is committed to playing our part.

Interviews by Josh Crossman, Amy O’Meara, Carrie Anne Philbin, James Robinson, and Sian Williams Page. Responses have been lightly edited by Sian Williams Page.

Leading the way

As the coronavirus crisis unfolded, schools quickly put in place plans to change fundamentally the way they supported students. Computing teachers have been leaders in this change.

Four weeks before Easter, the world situation was changing on a daily basis. We were watching what was happening in Italy. My Head sent me an email and said, “I don’t want to panic you, but I do feel like schools might close. Can you have a plan ready?”

Our leadership team went into crisis management mode. In early discussions, we had said that teachers would be able to manage working from home however they wanted. But then I’d read about the educators in Italy and the cognitive overload of them trying to manage their teaching by email and how awful that was for them. So I pushed very strongly, and luckily my colleagues were fully supportive, that we should actually move everything to our online platform and be really consistent in that respect.

As the lockdown approached, there were fewer and fewer teachers in school, and fewer students too. We were having to put whole year groups into our cinema to watch a film to manage them, because we didn’t have enough staff to supervise them in classes.

Those weeks before Easter were so intense. They were just crazy. It took me a week to get the adrenaline out of my system.

– Katie Vanderpere-Brown, Assistant Headteacher at Saffron Walden County High School in Essex

Our department has been at the forefront of this. We spent the week before the school closed pre-empting that happening. We trained the students how to use our online system in huge whole-year groups in the sports hall, with teachers demonstrating what to do, and going around showing them how to access it using their phones. And after the school closed, but before we were properly in the lockdown, the staff were in school, but social distancing. So we were all two metres apart from each other. We did a big training session on how to set up our classes and resources online, and how to use the video sessions as well.

– Pippa Lewty, Head of Department for Computer Science at Reigate Grammar School, an independent school in Surrey

We sort of suspected that distance learning was coming, but we only had a week’s heads-up. There was a lot of me trying to train the teachers and the students right before we went out. I went into all the fourth and fifth grade classes (ages 9–11) and I did a video calling mini-lesson with all of them. I taught all the kids how to get on a call right in the class, so that they would be prepared and know how to do that.

So when we first were at home it was basically me on calls all day, with the teachers going over features and then going over different platforms of how they could take their teaching digital. It was less about my actual curriculum and more about how I could be there to support other teachers that don’t have the awareness of how to make learning come to life technologically.

– Alexis Cobo, Technology and Computer Science Specialist, Pine Crest School, Boca Raton, Florida

As part of my role as Head of Computing, and increasingly taking on the whole school responsibility for our digital strategy, the last-minute staff training for remote learning largely came down to me. Our staff engaged with the training really well, but it was a steep learning curve for all of us. During the first couple of weeks of remote learning, before Easter, I was responding to over 200 emails daily, from staff, pupils, and parents.

– Peter Collins, Head of Computing at Yarm School, an independent school in North Yorkshire

© Amy Grimes

Practical considerations

Some schools have encouraged students to use mobile phones to access resources, while others have been providing printed worksheets.

A lot of young people at home, particularly in our community, they’re not necessarily going to have one device per pupil. Just before we closed, I spotted that another school had tweeted about using Xbox and PS4 to access resources. Students could log in and basically do their homework on the Xbox. And so we passed that on to parents. I don’t know how thrilled some of the pupils were that we pointed that out.

– Fraser McKay, Computer Science teacher at St John Ogilvie High School, a comprehensive school in Hamilton, Scotland

What we’re doing for the students without internet access is printing out things and actually creating a paper-based version of it. But obviously in the online version, you’ve got the contact with your teacher, you can talk to people, you can find the answers out. If you haven’t got that, then you’re basically just doing something potentially from your own memory or problem solving. So it’s a little different.

– Jim Green, Head of Technical and Vocational, Consett Academy, Durham

Maybe five per cent of the children we work with have computers, but that could be logging either to their father’s or their elder brother’s or something like that, not something that they can access all the time. So the only option we have to use is WhatsApp via parents’ phones.

– Rinsa Perapadan, Gyanada Foundation, Mumbai, India

We’ve realised that the breakdown of learning is not at the student understanding level. It’s more limitations in terms of access, or the systems not providing the right sort of access. These are systemic challenges rather than learning challenges. We are just facing a massive digital divide. There’s a segment of India that’s moving very rapidly and they are getting access to all kinds of learning. But there’s a segment of the student population that doesn’t even have cell phones.

– Shoaib Dar, Pi Jam Foundation, Pune, India

There are some students in most year groups who don’t have access to the internet. The devices in school are used by the children of key workers, so we’re preparing printed packs for children who need them. Teachers arrange work for the start of the week, so that packs can be printed off for those families who don’t have internet access, and then they can pick those up from the school office.

– Jen McCulloch, New Brighton Primary School, Wirral

© Amy Grimes

Providing hardware

Some schools have provided laptops and internet access to students who needed them.

Early in March, we quickly surveyed the whole student body on their access to the internet from home and the availability of a device to access and complete their schoolwork. It became apparent that many students had their own smartphone, but laptops or computers were not as common. To ensure the students were set up to complete their virtual learning, we agreed to loan our banks of laptops to any student who needed one, ultimately loaning out over 120, and even home-delivering some to those already in isolation. We additionally provided each student with two blank exercise books, a pen, and pencil, to ensure they were all equally prepared to work from home.

– Sam Hankin, Head of Computing at The Priory School, a comprehensive school in Hitchin, Hertfordshire

Most of our students have access to the internet, but it’s more a question of what type of device they use for access. We’ve shared printed workbooks with students and we’re hoping to purchase some computers for students who currently have access via a phone or tablet. It’s possible to access the resources using these devices but it’s so much harder to write and debug code if you don’t have a keyboard.

– Pete Dring, Head of Computing at Fulford School, a comprehensive school in York

Before schools shut, we had a five-day window. We took a survey of students who did not have access to devices or the internet and we gave out devices to those who needed and we purchased a prepaid WiFi router for those who didn’t have the internet and sent them home with that. And then, once we actually were working from home, we gave another opportunity for those who felt like they needed something extra a chance to come back to the school and pick up an extra device.

Alexis Cobo

When we’ve had students without any internet access, we’ve sent them 4G wireless hotspots to their house to make sure that they can access content.

– Steven Rich, Computer Science teacher at Ada, the National College for Digital Skills in Tottenham, London

© Amy Grimes

Additional needs

Some schools are providing food and clothes to their students.

We are delivering food to families. That was part of my role when I was in school for my two weeks on the rota. We’re accepting donations of food; people who are on their daily walk drop it inside our school foyer’s double doors. We have to say thank you from the other side of the door. And then the teacher who’s in and the teaching assistant, we sort it all out. Whoever needs it will phone and speak to the head teacher. Then the teacher will go and deliver it.

Some parents might not have had free school meal vouchers. There’s a lot of parents out there that would have been fine in the normal world, if their partner is working they might have been a stay-at-home mum and they would have been ticking by fine. But then all of a sudden this comes along, the partner has stopped working, and they find themselves thinking, “I haven’t got any money.”

We’ve also been delivering clothes. So because obviously children are still growing, but their parents can’t afford to get them new clothes and nowhere is open. Primark was the cheap place to go for children’s clothes and it’s not open at the moment.

Our head teacher has said we will be doing these deliveries once a week until it isn’t needed anymore.

– Katie Johnson, Year 1 teacher (ages 5–6) at St Mary’s the Mount Catholic Primary School, Walsall

Students’ confidence with the technology

Even when students have devices and internet access, barriers to learning remain.

Everybody completely overestimates children’s confidence with technology, because they can use social media and things that have been very carefully designed to be very easy to use. But they’ve lost, or they’ve never had, any functional skills.

So yesterday, for example, I was teaching a Year 7 (age 11–12) who was really struggling. In the end I said, “If you’ve got a parent there, I’ll call you and then you can show me your screen.” She didn’t realise you could click on the assignment and type. So she’d been screenshotting everything to Word and typing it out.

So that was like a light bulb moment for her, and she’ll be fine now, but there are 300 Year 7s. And so it’s very difficult, we have to teach them how to do the work. I think we have to readdress digital literacy because they don’t have the skills at all.

– Katie Vanderpere-Brown

I worry about the children whose parents cannot speak English at all. They can’t access what we’re sending.

– Katie Johnson

© Amy Grimes

Managing expectations

Some schools have responded to parents’ demands to provide live lessons and individual support to students.

Parents want us to justify why they’re paying fees when we’re not in school teaching. In comparison to some state schools, we’re doing a lot more. We’re doing live contact with every class once a week for 30 minutes.

– Pippa Lewty

I teach at a private school. And I know that the parents want live teaching and individual support, so the kids are reaching out for private sessions and I make myself available to them. You know, no matter whatever’s going on with my own family, I get on the Zoom with a student, because if a student wants me, that’s the priority.

– Alexis Cobo

Some of the expectations of the parents and what their children can achieve remotely have been a little too high. Therefore as a leadership team, we have been trying to get across to some of the parent body the need to not try and replicate school completely from the home setting.

Some parents have been expecting the school to be running their children’s timetable with full synchronous remote lessons at the exact time as it is on their timetables. Realistically this has not been possible yet. Although moving forward, we might be able to do some of these in a blended approach.

– Matthew Wimpenny-Smith, Leader of Digital Strategy and Computing teacher at Headington Prep School, an independent girls’ school in Oxford

I know quite a few teachers that are being paid to tutor while the schools are shut, as parents are so scared of children falling behind. But they’re doing more work, and you will always have concerned parents.

So I think that when we go back, the achievement gap will be greater and I can’t even imagine how a lot of schools will address that. I think we’re in a slightly more fortunate position being a grammar school that we tend to have those parents that have pushed hard, but that’s not to say that we won’t have any of those students that will come back having done nothing.

– Claire Buckler Devonport High School for Boys, a state-funded grammar school in Devon

If you are interacting with the students, they work. They work more effectively. They feel more like they’re actually in an environment where they’re with the teacher in the lesson. That is what they’re telling us they like.

– Dave Hartley, Head of Computing at Steyning Grammar School, a secondary and sixth-form college and state-funded boarding school

© Amy Grimes

Live lessons vs asynchronous learning

While other schools have been reluctant to provide live lessons due to safeguarding concerns, there is a fear of leaving some students behind, or the concerns of constraints on parents’ abilities to support learning.

There are horror stories, where people have been jumping in and dropping websites in and videos in, and then you hear about apps being hacked. E-safety is constantly in your head, thinking, ‘What’s the easiest and safest way we can do this?’

We did think of doing a call with little group of the kids, but then we were worried that we will exclude three or four of the class who won’t be able to do it. I am just trying to keep everything the same for everyone as best as we can, so everybody feels they are getting the same.

– Tom Bromwich, Year 3 teacher (ages 7–8) at Cooper and Jordan C of E School, a state primary school in Walsall

Before the start of lockdown, we decided to avoid live lessons and opted for an asynchronous model. Aside from the potential safeguarding issues, we were aware that many of our families would be working flexibly to enable them to manage parental and pupil workloads. Therefore, we were not confident that all our pupils would be able to have access to lessons delivered at fixed points in the school day. Instead, we’ve been working hard on providing high-quality recorded screencasts and personalised formative feedback for each pupil.

– Peter Collins

We do often get a lot of feedback that the parents are saying, “I can’t do the homeschooling, the children don’t want to do the homeschooling, I can’t do it, the children don’t want to do it,” and we’re just giving the advice that don’t worry about it and we’ll catch up when we come back in September. It’s not going to be the be-all and end-all; don’t force them to do it. Their mental health is more important than that. So on the newsletter that the head teacher sends out every week by email, she’s encouraging family time and having fun in the garden, and not forcing anything and not causing arguments.

– Katie Johnson

© Amy Grimes

Accommodating needs

Teachers are trying to accommodate the needs of all students.

We had some Year 7 students (ages 11–12) who were really, really not coping and feeling completely overwhelmed. Their head of year created a class with about 20 students in it that were really struggling at home. And for those children, they got removed from all the other online lessons. She is taking the assignments that are being set for the other students, adapting them, and setting them for this small nurture group.

– Katie Vanderpere-Brown

We’ve been encouraging pupils with accessibility needs to use built-in accessibility tools, and a variety of other easy-to-use apps and extensions, like an amazing screen-reading extension that our pupils use to support them with reading, writing assignments, and online research. Some of these tools are expensive, but lots of companies are doing extended free trials due to the lockdown. These tools are helping our teachers meet the diverse needs and abilities of our pupils, so they can fully engage with the curriculum like they would in the classroom.

– Peter Collins

I’ve got a child in my class who wouldn’t be able to access anything that I would be able to put up on online. So I made up a box for him. I’ve put balls in there and colouring crayons, and games that he can play with his mum. So it’s taking turn games and things like that, and obviously sterilised and everything before I delivered to his mum so that he still got something that he can do at home, but it’s not the same as the other children.

– Katie Johnson

© Amy Grimes

Using online tools

Adapting methods to teach computing remotely is proving challenging, but there are online tools to help with programming tasks.

There are lots of things that we were doing in class that are quite hard to manage online. We do a lot of pair programming, but we can’t really; we haven’t really worked out how we could really do that online and match people. Then we thought about it; if you match people up, what happens if they don’t speak to each other? And how do you do all of that matching up? It’s not as easy as sitting two people next to each other in a classroom. I have been breaking out people into small groups to work on tasks, though.

We’ve been doing a mixture of multiple-choice questions and quizlets, and things like that. I think it’s still an area that we’re still trying to develop; how we can move the techniques that we would use in the classroom into the online world. I think it’s fair to say there’s still development we can do there.

– Steven Rich

We decided to run a weekly live-coding programming video series. It’s aimed at students who are in Years 8 to 10 (ages 12–15), as well as teachers and parents who are interested. The idea is to try to solve a new problem or explore a new concept each week and limit the videos to about ten minutes in length. Live coding means letting people into the thought processes and mistakes behind a program, so that they can build up their own experience creating their own programs. That means trying hard to strike a balance between not waffling for too long about each line of code, but also trying to give a running commentary that explains how each part works.

At the end of each video, students can choose from four interactive remote learning activities. The hope is that they can watch the video and work through the activities at their own pace, so that they can get a healthy balance of instruction and independent application of what they’ve learnt.

As a computing department, we’ve tried to use live coding as a pedagogical technique in our normal teaching, so this is a natural extension of that. The big revelation for us teachers was that it’s OK to let students see our programming mistakes. I think students learn more from seeing how to fix something than being shown how to do it correctly in the first place. That’s aside from the benefit of actively seeking out opportunities to praise students’ attitude when they respond with resilience and creativity to fix their own mistakes.

Repl.it and Trinket also both offer great online Python tools. We wanted students to be able to write, run, debug, and share their code online without us having to worry about creating accounts or resetting passwords.

– Pete Dring

Now we have kind of got all over the emergency-ness of it, it’s down to the nitty-gritty of teaching and learning. We’re preparing for the GCSE non-exam assessment (NEA), so we’re doing all of the preteaching for that. The students will have had lots of programming experience. But what we’re doing is designing short programming tasks that build on each other, to enable the students to practise the skills that they’ll need. The exam boards are currently saying that students cannot complete their NEA while not in the school building, which we’re hoping will change quite quickly, because the NEA is not worth anything with regards to the GCSE weightings, and I cannot imagine anyone would want to spend 20 hours of the contact time we may have in the future completing it. So we’re hoping that they’ll change that rule. But in any case, it’s a good way to practise programming.

– Katie Vanderpere-Brown

© Amy Grimes

The future

Teachers have been reflecting on the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their work and the future of education.

I really miss the kids. Because I’ve kind of been back and forth, I’ve been thinking about whether I’d leave the classroom or I’d like to be in an admin type of role. I’ve done a lot of that during this time, providing a lot of support for faculty members and curriculum writing. But at the end of the day, I really miss the kids. So it’s taught me that I still really love teaching.

– Alexis Cobo

Life has changed dramatically over the last two months and who knows what the future will look like, but we need to work together and stay positive. Our students are changing and adapting like nothing we have ever seen before.

– Sam Hankin

I think there are definitely things like the way that I am teaching particularly that could change. If a student’s not in school for whatever reason, if they’re at home or they can’t get into school, why can’t they just join the class online? I’ve got a disabled student in my Year 13 class (age 16–17), and she’s not missed an online lesson once, regardless of what’s going on at home. So if she does have to be in hospital or she has to be doing something else, why aren’t I using these tools all the time?

– Katy Teague, Head of Computer Science at Grey Court School, an academy in Richmond

I’ve learnt not to underestimate how resilient students actually are. The students have shown that actually they can learn at home quite well. I think giving them the resources and potentially more structured lessons to do at home is really, really beneficial. And come exam time they will know how to revise at home.

– Jim Green

I hope that this crisis wakes the educational establishment up to the potential of remote learning and breaks the obsession with terminal exams, shifting the focus back on to the joy and wonder of learning something new.

– Pete Dring

There is a sense of community that being at school brings. The buzz you get from a room full of young people ready to learn. Humans are innately social animals, wanting to come together in the same space to learn. That is something that simply cannot be replaced by video links and virtual classroom spaces. But the situation forced on us has given us a taste of an exciting new way of working. We will need to find a new middle ground. I hope for a change from the traditional Victorian model of school that has endured for so many years, to a new model fit for a new era that will come out of this time.

– Matthew Wimpenny-Smith


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