Five steps for home learning: A practical, realistic and effective approach

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We are almost one month into the coronavirus lockdown. As the summer term gets underway, Matt Bromley offers further advice on teaching activities and approaches that are practical, realistic and effective for home education

The term “home-schooling” – though ubiquitous – is, I think, a misnomer. No-one should expect parents to “school” their children during the coronavirus lockdown in the sense of following the national curriculum. “Purposeful home study” may be more appropriate.

With this in mind, I would suggest that our top priority should be to help parents to keep their children physically and mentally healthy.

In terms of keeping physically healthy, we would do well to encourage daily exercise. There are plenty of online workout videos to choose from.

In terms of keeping mentally healthy, we might encourage parents to manage the information they share with their children with regards the coronavirus. We could provide mindfulness activities, too.

Encourage parents to establish a routine including what time children get up, get dressed and have breakfast. Although this is not “business as usual”, pupils do need to be reminded that they are not on holiday and need to “attend” online learning, work hard and meet deadlines.

We might encourage pupils to work to a limited timetable – but, if so, we need to be cautious and pragmatic. Not all pupils will be able to stick to a rigid plan and many will lack the support or home environment conducive to this.

If we do adopt a timetable approach, BBC Bitesize could help. From Monday (April 20), the BBC has been running Bitesize Daily lessons for all ages and key stages, following a weekly timetable. Also, the newly formed Oak National Academy has used Department for Education (DfE) funding to produce, with the help of 40 teachers from across the country, an online package of lessons.

Instead of a rigid timetable, however, I would advise we provide pupils with a list of tasks to be completed by the end of the day or week, rather than time-stamped “lessons”. This “to-do list” approach will afford children – and their parents – some control over what they do and when, and that element of choice should help to motivate them.

Whatever approach is taken, we need to allow plenty of free time for games and practical, creative activities as well as important family time. If we can encourage parents to combine the work that we set with educating children about household tasks and home economics, as well as current affairs, then all the better.

So, what else should we consider as we set work for the term ahead?

Variety

We want to ensure that the work we set is varied, both in terms of fulfilling a “broad and balanced” curriculum, and in the form and format it takes.

For example, although there are many excellent online platforms and services, we want to manage children’s screen time. We also need to be cognisant of the fact that some pupils will not have a device or internet access (although, the DfE has revealed plans to get devices to disadvantaged pupils).

It would be wise, therefore, not only to provide digital resources for those in need, but also to ensure that some work is paper-based and/or requires children to be active, moving around the house.

Autonomy

We should be mindful that many children will not have support at home and so we should not rely on parents being able to help. As well as providing a means for pupils to seek help from us, their teachers, we should try to ensure that most work can be completed independently – and the best form of independent work is retrieval practice, in other words, the active revision of prior learning.

Workload

We do not want to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, we should make full use of all the free resources available to us. Do not neglect Oak National Academy and the BBC Bitesize service as already mentioned.

Headteacher Update has also published part one and part two of our compendium of resources, many of which are freely available, for teachers and students (Headteacher Update 2020a; 2020b). Meanwhile, a range of Headteacher Update best practice advice for home learning, with articles relevant to both teachers and parents, can be found here.

We should also make use of existing learning plans and resources in school. Do we have work already on our VLEs that we can use? Can we tweak existing schemes of work and lesson plans for home learning?

We should not forget the basic principles of home-learning, namely that it should:

  • Be clearly related to what pupils have been doing in school.
  • Be varied and manageable.
  • Be challenging but not too difficult.
  • Allow for individual initiative and creativity.
  • Include a mechanism for pupils to receive guidance and support, and for recognition or reward for work done.

So, here are my top five tips for making a success of home learning.

1, Explain it

Although it may be possible to make a success of video-conferencing in which the teacher delivers a “live” interactive lesson, it is very hard to get this right. There are also clear online safety and safeguarding issues to consider.

However, pre-recorded video can be used effectively to deliver teacher explanations. The videos are made available for pupils to watch at a time suitable to them, but within set timescales. It is possible on some platforms to monitor who “attends” each video (and watches in full) to ensure full participation.

The videos usually work best when they are short, focused on a small amount of information at a time, given in clear steps, and when the explanations is concise.

Explanations should be delivered in short chunks, with longer pauses for punctuation than you would ordinarily think to give. The language needs to be simpler, too, and body language should be kept simple. It also works best when you complement a video of yourself talking with slides and other materials (most platforms allow you to share your screen).

It might be helpful to provide a knowledge organiser – via Google Docs, say – before pupils watch the video on which pupils can make notes (see tip two) and perhaps complete a pre-quiz to activate prior learning and assess starting points.

Direct instruction via video works best when it includes metaphors and analogies because this enables the teacher to contextualise new information so that abstract ideas are made concrete, tangible, and so that they are connected to pupils’ own lives and experiences.

Video-based explanations also tend to work best when the teacher makes effective use of dual-coding. In other words, verbal instructions are paired with and complemented by visuals such as diagrams, charts, graphics and moving images.

Here, Loom is a useful tool because it allows teachers to record their explanations over the top of slides, a virtual whiteboard or other text-based resources, and to do so in “real time” and in a natural manner.

2, Note it

Once pupils have watched a video, they should be required to write about what they have learned.

As I say above, we might support this process by providing a knowledge organiser in advance, or perhaps just a simple, partially pre-populated Cornell note-taking pro-forma (remember, if you expect pupils to use something like Cornell, it is important they are taught how to do so first – see further information).

Writing about your learning is a form of self-explanation which is an effective study aid. Whether pupils use a partially pre-populated worksheet or just write freehand in a Google Doc, say, is up to you and will be informed by the pupils’ ages and abilities.

The key is to ensure pupils write in order to learn and that this writing is shared with you and possibly the whole class. Mind-maps and other visual aids might also be used, in addition to notes, to help pupils process and structure their thoughts. The final product is not necessarily important, it is the act of writing about one’s learning that matters.

3, Model it

To complement and extend our video explanations, we might also share models of excellence with pupils, perhaps in the form of worked examples.

These can be shared via video, say by us producing a model on a virtual whiteboard, or as additional written resources shared via Google Docs or Microsoft Teams.

Good models demonstrate what works and/or what does not. We might, therefore, show pupils what excellence looks like by sharing models of the very best work, giving them something to aspire to, and an understanding of how to produce high-quality work of their own.

But we might also show pupils models of ineffective work, work that is not quite the best (or perhaps is very far from being the best) so that pupils can learn what not to do and how to avoid making the same mistakes. Perhaps they could be tasked with identifying mistakes or aspects of the work that could be improved.

What is important is that these models are dissected for pupils, with us demonstrating the dissection process either “live” via video or as a worked example where we show our thought processes.

4, Revise it

Once we have undertaken steps one to three, we need pupils to practise the learning. We can help pupils with this by helping them to engage in self-quizzing, elaboration and generation, among other approaches.

Self-quizzing

Self-quizzing is about retrieving knowledge and skills from memory and is far more effective than simply rereading study notes. When pupils read a text or their notes, we need to encourage them to pause periodically to ask themselves questions – without looking in the text – such as:

  • What are the key ideas?
  • What terms or ideas are new to me? How would I define them?
  • How do the ideas in this text relate to what I already know?

We should encourage pupils to set aside a little time each week to quiz themselves on the work they have done, as well as what they learned in school before closure. Once they have self-quizzed, pupils need to check their answers and make sure they have an accurate understanding of what they know and what they do not know. Pupils need to know that making mistakes will not set them back, so long as they check their answers later and correct any errors.

Elaboration

Elaboration is the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material. It involves relating new material to what pupils already know, explaining it to somebody else, or explaining how it relates to the wider world. We could encourage pupils to explain their learning to their parents or to us and each other via Google Docs, Microsoft Teams, etc. One way to elaborate is to use flashcards with a question on one side and the answer on the other. Websites like Quizlet allow pupils to create and share the flashcards and to test themselves.

Generation

Generation is when pupils attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution. The act of filling in a missing word (the cloze test) results in better learning and a stronger memory of the text than simply reading the text. Before pupils read new material, they should be encouraged to explain the key ideas they expect to find and how they expect these ideas will relate to their prior knowledge.

5, Support it

Finally, some pupils will need more help than others. It might be worthwhile scheduling days and times when you will be online and available for pupils (and possibly their parents) to contact via email or your school’s learning platforms. You should stick to set times and not make yourself available 24/7. You could complement this “surgery” style of support, with regular scheduled phone calls to the parents of the most disadvantaged pupils, as well as those with additional and different needs.

If all else fails...

One of the easiest – and most effective – things our pupils can do at home is reading. We can help parents to develop their children’s reading skills by providing them with some easy-to-follow tips. And we can make sure pupils have easy access to lots of books, including via local library ebook services.

The best way to help children develop their reading skills is to start by modelling fluent reading – in other words, to show them how we read (making good use of pace, including pauses, and intonation).

We should encourage parents to use – and indeed we could provide – short extracts or passages and save the novels for children’s private reading pleasure.

We could also ask parents to focus on comprehension. Here, the goal is to help children develop the following skills:

  • Predict: While they are reading aloud, ask children to guess what might happen next – this will also make sure they pay more attention to the text.
  • Question: Ask children to think of questions they would like to ask about the text, ask why they would ask those questions and at those points in the text. Ask children to tell us anything they are unsure about and ask how they might gather further information to help them become more certain.
  • Summarise: Ask children to briefly describe what just happened in the text or, alternatively, ask them to create a timeline showing how the plot is developing, or to write pen portraits of key characters.
  • Inference: Ask children to infer the meaning of sentences from their context, and the meaning of words from spelling patterns. Or ask them to infer what characters really mean by what they say.
  • Connect: Ask children to tell us what they already know about the topic of the text and ask them to make links to what they are reading.
  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk

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