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Learning in the time of coronavirus

Harry Fletcher-Wood, Associate Dean and Lead of the Teacher Educator Fellows programme at the Ambition Institute, identifies five challenges teachers face in implementing remote learning and provides tips on how to overcome them.

You can follow him on Twitter here. Mr. Fletcher-Wood has kindly allowed BESA to republish this blog from his own site. 

How do we keep teaching if schools are closed?

It won’t be long before schools in the UK close. They’ve closed in countries heavily affected – Spain, Italy, Greece, China, Hong Kong; they’ve closed in countries not yet heavily affected – like Denmark and Poland; and it seems to help. Closures may last a couple of weeks, but they may be much longer: schools in Hong Kong closed for two weeks in January; they are due to start reopening from mid-April to mid-May. My current hunch is that they will close next week – and won’t reopen immediately after the holidays.

We’re not ready. The teachers I’ve spoken to this week were unanimously concerned. Schools are planning: to send knowledge organisers home, ensure Year 11 have laptops, find ways to send work home. However, schools’ plans seem limited to ensuring students have something available. It’s much harder to plan ways to ensure students actually benefit: teachers were particularly concerned about their most vulnerable students: those who need school most will struggle most. One teacher predicted an “absolute disaster.”

How can we avoid disaster? How can we ensure students keep learning? What should we be preparing? I lead a programme – the Teacher Educator Fellows with Ambition Institute – where we meet only rarely (the programme last two years, we meet six times, for two days each time). Since the programme began, I’ve learned a lot about how make learning work at distance. The constraints aren’t identical to those schools face now, but there are many similarities too: we’re working with humans, who have many other priorities, and who we cannot force to do anything.

This post examines five challenges schools face, shares my experience in addressing them, and suggests implications for teachers. I’ve also written about ways to nudge students to participate.

1) Work out what you want them to do, then work out how to get them to do it at distance

Challenge: How do we plan for distance learning?

What I’ve learned: Plan what you want people to learn/do/practise, then find a way to make it work at distance. For example, I want participants to increase their knowledge about the evidence underpinning teacher education by reading key texts. I’ve found ways to do that: share texts (e.g. by email), invite responses to specific questions (e.g. through Google Forms) and share select responses with everyone (e.g. through email again). I don’t need to worry about the technology, just about what I want participants to do.

Implications for teachers: Identify the activities which matter most to student learning (for example, reading challenging texts, answering practice questions, testing themselves). The find a simple way to get them to do that:

  • Reading challenging texts: share texts via email (or whatever), ask students to read and summarise/comment on a Google Doc or Google Sheet.
  • Answer practice questions: set exercises (by email or live over Skype); ask students to respond to specific questions
  • Test themselves: send tests (email, Google Docs), then ask students to complete them.

Bottom line: You know how to teach students. Just find the nearest equivalent to the points that matter most.

What kind of tasks do matter most?

2) Set simple, recursive tasks

Challenge: People are busy and have other priorities: at distance, I can’t control their actions or cajole them to participate effectively. If a task is too complicated or difficult, they’ll give up.

What I’ve learned: If we change our approach to tasks every lesson, students have to think about how to do the task, which distracts them from doing the task and learning about it. In the classroom, we can cope, because a) we can see their distraction and b) we can explain again. At distance, both of these things are harder. I try to design clear, simple tasks which permit new learning when they’re repeated. For example, in a module on the science of learning, I ask participants to do the same thing every week: teach some teachers a principle of the science of learning and assess what they understand. The task doesn’t change, but its value increases as participants cover different principles and refine their approach.

Implications for teachers: Prioritise clear tasks which all students can do. Elegant and thought-provoking tasks which some students can’t complete (and therefore disengage from) are counter productive. Dani Quinn articulates this beautifully(speaking of homework):

If they struggled in class, there is no way they will be able to do the homework. If they got it in class, they MIGHT be able to do the homework…. I cannot see the logic of presenting the most challenging work at the point of lowest support (i.e. you’re not there, and they are tired and probably rushing it).

“Just use homework to practise and consolidate things they already know how to do. Set homework where you can expect 100% of pupils can get close to 100% (provided they are putting effort in).”

What are the most promising activities which students can complete? Individually, testing themselves, completing practice questions and assessing them against models. If they are on an online lesson, attending to explanations and taking notes.

Bottom line: Pick 2-3 simple activities which can be applied to multiple topics in a worthwhile way.

3) Use time in person to motivate, explain and practise distance tasks

Challenge: Students may lack experience or motivation in the tasks which you set.

What I’ve learned: Each module on the programme lasts around one half term; I see participants for a day or two to prepare them for it. I teach some key ideas in this time, but my main focus is a) showing participants the value of the tasks I’ll ask them to complete and b) ensuring they know how to complete them well. I devote time to explaining why this module and this task matter; I also invite participants to practise the task. For example, there is a weekly catch up call for participants to share what they’re working on and get feedback; we practise the call structure in person, to ensure that it feels manageable individually.

Implication for teachers: Having decided the 2-3 tasks you think students should pursue, show your students why those tasks matter: “I’ve chosen this task because… it’ll help you because… why do you think it’s a good idea?” (I’ll come back to ways to motivate students in a future post). Then spend a lesson practising it and asking students the barriers they’ve identified.

Bottom line: Ensure students know exactly what you want them to do and why before you send them home.

4) Responsive teaching works at distance too

Challenge: How can we know how students are doing at distance?

What I’ve learned: Responsive teaching really matters. I can’t stand not knowing how much participants understand. But you can get that online. For example, participants write a) their takeaway from their weekly call and action step; b) what they’ve taken from weekly readings (this also means they can learn from one another). If I’m leading a session online (through Skype or Zoom), I pause and either ask a specific question or just ask for participants’ reactions and questions, which they type into the chatbox. I ask everyone to respond – “If you have no questions, can you just write ‘No questions’” In some ways, it’s easier this way.

Implications for teachers: Ask for feedback. Use Google Forms for bigger questions, chatboxes during taught sessions.

Bottom line: Keep monitoring student understanding and adapting your teaching.

5) Pick the simplest tech solutions

Challenge: I’m not tech-savvy/ my students face barriers getting online/ we don’t have a sophisticated tech platform to share work.

What I’ve learned: As a student, teacher and teacher-educator, every tech learning platform I’ve encountered designed to provide an online learning environment overpromises and under-delivers: they’re clunky, confusing and inflexible. They are an invitation to give up, unless you’re hugely motivated. Whenever possible, I use the simplest possible tools: websites and apps which are designed to be easy to use – usually for commercial use. Facebook and Google are optimised to be easy to use. They are easy for students and teachers alike. Here are four simple, self-explanatory tools:

Implications for teachers: Any tech platform needs to be easily usable by all students, all teachers and (preferably) parents. If you have one already, great. If not, use existing tech solutions which you and your students are familiar with and take minimal time to set up. Don’t worry about trying to get the whole course online, just share the task and resources students need now. The other advantage to this approach is that most students (and a large number of primary pupils) can access them on their phones: the barrier of laptop + internet access evaporates.

Bottom line: Pick simple tech solutions which you can use now.

6) Make it easy to create a habit

Challenge: How can I get students to actually do this?

My learning: I try to make tasks predictable and routine to help participants form habits. I always email participants with the week’s tasks on a Monday; the deadline is always a Monday. I try never to ask for more than one substantive task each week. Planning when you will do something and picking the best moment to do so makes it much more likely you’ll do it.

Implications for teachers: Set predictable times and routines for action. For maths or English, that might be an email task going out every morning, to be completed that day. For other subjects it might be every Monday, or every Wednesday, with a clear deadline. Or you could stick to the existing school timetable. Make it easy for students to form a habit.

Bottom line: Help students form habits of study by offering predictable cues (and monitoring completion).


Even if schools never close, preparing for additional distance learning may be valuable over the holidays or as revision tasks. I’d be astonished if they don’t close at some point. A little bit of preparation now will substantially increase the chances of students using time at home to keep learning, and will help us avoid increasing the attainment gap. I would recommend:

  1. Identifying what matters most in our teaching now, and finding ways to do it at distance
  2. Setting simple tasks which students can get used to doing well
  3. Sharing what you want students to do and why, now
  4. Checking student understanding
  5. Picking simple tech solutions
  6. Helping students form habits

These methods only partly address how we can motivate students to participate. I’ve discussed this dilemma in more detail here.

I’m sure there are things I’ve missed, and I’d welcome thoughts, questions and suggestions in the comments.

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