Lockdown teaching and learning: A quick guide for teaching staff

Written by: Sara Davidson & Sean Harris | Published:
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Feeling daunted by the return to remote teaching? In this two-part series Sara Davidson and Sean Harris look at some of the basic research-informed principles that can help teachers and parents to navigate learning at home. In part one they offer advice tailored for educators


While remote education know-how has increased exponentially over the course of the last year, teachers and parents alike may still feel that blended learning is outside of their comfort zone for many reasons.

In these two articles we want to dissect what the research says about effective approaches. We begin with advice for teaching staff.


Refresh your working memory

It is important to remember that although teaching remotely feels different, teachers’ pedagogy should still be underpinned by the same core principles, albeit facilitated by the technology.

It is easy to become a slave to the technology, but our pupils’ electronic devices can only cope with a certain number of tasks and processes at a time; so too can their cognitive computing brain.

Via electronic devices and website browsing we are bombarded with sensory information. Images and information from our sensory memory pass into working memory. This information is processed and, in some cases, discarded by our brains. Helpfully, our brains compute this information and categorise it into knowledge structures called “schemas”.

John Sweller published a paper on this subject in 1988. In summary, Sweller argued that, since working memory has limited capacity, we should be careful about overloading it with activities that do not directly lead into the learning that we intend to take place. To help pupils manage the “cognitive load” there are several key questions to ask before going straight into instruction:

  • What are the core concepts I really want my pupils to understand here?
  • What do they already know about these concepts/this subject and how do I know?
  • Where am I wanting pupils to be by the end of the day/week/month? What then are the actionable episodes of learning that need to take place without overloading them with too much in one sitting?


Mega-bite size

We have come a long way since the 1.44MB of a floppy-disk (some readers may need to Google this!). Imagine trying to navigate the pressures of blended learning in the age of megabytes of data and dial-up modems. We have also come a long way in our understanding of how children learn.

Learning is more effective when teachers are able to disseminate information into bitesize and manageable chunks.

Professor Dylan Wiliam asserts that cognitive load theory is the “single most important thing for teachers to know”. He suggests that the most effective teachers are able to disseminate information in optimal amounts, thus avoiding overloading the minds of learners (see Shibli & West, 2018).

Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish (1996) researched the polarity between the way that lectures were taught and how some university students retained information. They observed: “Traditional lectures do not match what current cognitive science tells us about how humans learn. The brain does not record information like a video-cassette recorder. Instead, it handles the volume of information by reducing it into meaningful chunks, that we call categories.”

Thus, it does not matter if we pre-record a 10-minute lesson or facilitate a 10-hour live teaching environment online – if we do not manage the content into manageable bite-sized parts then our pupils are unlikely to understand or process it.

While modern technology and virtual learning environments may enable most of us to get creative, we need to be mindful of the need to manage the information highway that we create for our pupils. Before crafting resources and uploading content we should check:

  • What are the key concepts that I want my pupils to manage and retain in this next segment of learning? How do I ensure this is the primary focus of the activity?
  • What analogy or example can I use to best illustrate the core concept that I need pupils to grasp?
  • To what extent have I practised and rehearsed my explanation so that it is clear? (e.g. presenting a new concept to a colleague or peer can be an excellent way of checking that your explanation of the content is clear and cohesive).
  • Where are the gaps in the lesson/activity to reiterate the learning? This may be harder to do via a pre-recorded lesson but build time in for pupils to refresh their understanding and reiterate what was shared earlier in the learning episode.


Firewall the distractions

Our brains are never actually focusing on two tasks simultaneously, instead they are splitting the focus between the two different tasks. Split attention can be detrimental to quality, memory and the accuracy of instruction. Wood et al (2011) note how attempting to engage in two non-related tasks at once can have a detrimental impact on learning too.

If you want a really interesting example of this then look into Simmons and Chabris’ research into inattentional blindness. According to them: “We perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention.” (Simons & Chabris, 1999)

While blended learning and teaching has required the need to manage competing tasks, this can actually be one of the biggest barriers to learning. School leader Jon Tait (2020) notes some of the key considerations that teachers should take into account when planning learning, particularly in the use of innovative and creative technologies. He writes: “Multi-tasking may be great for productivity when you need to get things done, but it is an undesirable difficulty when it comes to learning.”

In his book, Teaching Rebooted – using the science of learning to transform classroom practice, he also highlights some of the following pitfalls to avoid when putting together live or pre-recorded content:

  • Hard-to-read fonts: Instead opt for a standard format and colour that most pupils are familiar with and is easily accessible by all.
  • Animated images and GIFS: Animated GIFs and images are more likely to split the attention of our pupils away from the core content. Leave them out.
  • Too much text: There is a temptation to cram lots of text into slides to cover all of the content. Make text consumable and manageable; keep it summative.
  • Reading from slides: By reading out the words already printed, we send working memory into overdrive because our pupils are listening and reading at the same time. Instead, allow time for them to read it or leave gaps in your summary reading of the information.

In addition, it is important to consider the environment and the different resources we are asking pupils to use. While electronic devices and mobile phones are an excellent resource to draw upon, Hyman et al (2009) warn that “(mobile) phone usage may cause inattentional blindness even during a simple activity that should require few cognitive resources”; pointing out that the very presence of mobile phones can have an impact on the attention span of users.

Remember that teaching and learning does not always have to follow the traditional synchronous model of live instruction. As well as pre-recorded content that can be accessed at any time, including before a live taught lesson, consider setting tasks away from the screen that will enable pupils to revisit key concepts and facilitate deliberate practice.


Upgrade your network

Remember that we are part of a global profession that continues to educate and learn trough the midst of uncharted times. We are not alone in this. The teaching network is not down. In recent months, the following sources of support have been helpful in producing a range of free and easily accessible resources to support teacher planning, CPD and collaboration.

  • We Are Beta: Committed to supporting teachers at all levels. You can join their virtual community for free to connect with teachers wanting to support, advise, grow and improve in their teaching and learning: www.weareinbeta.community
  • We Are Beta and the Greenshaw Learning Trust hosted the National INSET Day in December to take away the pressure of schools across the country organising their own INSET day at short notice. The following link takes you to the virtual conference space, home to everything that was shared as part of the day: http://bit.ly/3q9QniQ
  • Schools North East launched the ConnectEd community last year to support school leaders and teachers across the North East, but they have seen teachers across the country getting involved too: https://content.schoolsnortheast.org/networks/connected
  • Ambition Institute is an educational charity which supports school leaders and teachers. Last year, they published their Early Career Teacher resources for free online for all to access. These are bite-sized materials making learning and development manageable for new teachers: www.ambition.org.uk/ecf/

  • Sean Harris is a postdoctoral researcher investigating school-based poverty-proofing of curriculums and a teacher at Bede Academy in Northumberland.
  • Sara Davidson is principal lecturer for ITT at Teesside University and a former strategic lead for education with Middlesbrough Local Authority.


Further information & reading

  • Hyman et al: Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone, Applied Cognitive Psychology (24), 2009.
  • Middendorf and Alan Kalish: The ‘Change Up’ in lectures; TRC newsletter (8,1): https://bit.ly/3scBCNP
  • Shibli & West: Cognitive Load Theory and its application in the classroom, Impact, Chartered College of Teaching, February 2018: http://bit.ly/3eFMwVU
  • Simons & Chabris: Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception (28), 1999: https://bit.ly/2LmGr6L
  • Sweller: Cognitive load during problem-solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science (12,2), 1988: https://bit.ly/3sd6KwT
  • Tait: Teaching Rebooted: Using the science of learning to transform classroom practice, Bloomsbury, 2020.
  • Wood et al: Examining the impact of off task multi asking with technology on real-time classroom learning, Computers & Education (58), 2011: https://bit.ly/3seWlkh


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