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Teaching English when Schools were (mostly) Closed

We are delighted that the report from the British Educational Research Association funded project, Teaching English when Schools are Closed, is now available, identifying some of the challenges and successes experienced by English departments during lockdown 1. This project was a joint endeavour from our Centre for Research in Writing (represented by Annabel Watson and Sara Venner) and the Centre for Research in Social Mobility (represented by Anna Mountford-Zimdars)

The blog below which describes the project was first published on the British Educational Research Association Blog website in June 2021, at https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/how-do-we-teach-english-when-schools-are-closed

In this BERA-funded project we investigated how teachers adapted to the ‘new normal’ of online delivery from March 2020 until the reopening of schools on 8 March 2021. Surveys undertaken in the summer of 2020 found schools taking a wide variety of approaches to online provision, with these varying not only according to school culture, but also according to dimensions of broader school advantage and disadvantage (Cullinane & Montacute, 2020; Moss et al., 2020). We wanted to complement these broad surveys by taking a deeper look at how a small number of secondary schools delivered a particular subject, exploring the opportunities and risks afforded by the sudden change to how English was taught.

Through teacher interviews, we worked with three English departments (two state schools, one fee-paying independent school) to build case studies of their provision in the summer term of 2020. All decision-making was driven firstly by considerations of pupil, teacher and parent wellbeing, and then aimed at organising provision in a way that was structured and manageable. In the independent school, the economic pressure to provide ‘value for money’ to fee-paying parents was also important.

English is a subject that thrives on dialogue and typically has a ‘student-centred ideology’ (O’Sullivan & Goodwyn, 2020, p. 225). However, internationally, research suggests that teachers tended to use technology ‘in a predominantly teacher-led way’ when provision was moved suddenly online (Scully, Lehane, & Scully, 2020, p. 21). This was reflected in our findings. In the absence of clear guidance and with no preparation time, teachers in the state schools replicated familiar pedagogical activities that could translate straightforwardly into asynchronous online materials and tasks: teacher explanation, modelling, and independent reading and writing activities. One consequence of this, participants reported, was that students returned less confident in textual analysis when schools fully reopened – an indication perhaps of the importance of classroom dialogue for developing responses to texts (see Gordon, 2019; Newman & Watson, 2020).

‘In the absence of clear guidance and with no preparation time, teachers in the state schools replicated familiar pedagogical activities that could translate straightforwardly into asynchronous online materials and tasks: teacher explanation, modelling, and independent reading and writing activities.’

The independent school moved immediately to delivering live online lessons that followed their normal timetable. While these initially replicated the structure and content of their face-to-face curriculum, teachers gradually moved towards a project-based approach with greater opportunities for flexibility and independence. Teachers reported that this process had made them consider what they are ‘trying to achieve’ in their teaching, what transferred into their online lessons and what was lost: ‘should we emphasise more about the class, the group work, the sharing, the inter-human skills, the listening to others?’; ‘[this] very logical linear way that you do online, might free up, I hope, more space to think, well, what was the bit that was missing?’

Our study indicates that teacher’s online pedagogy during lockdown is closely linked to their knowledge of what technology can bring to learning. As schools return to ‘normal’ teaching, there is an opportunity to use the impetus generated by the rapid development of teacher knowledge to expand repertoires of online pedagogy, whether this be as an alternative to face-to-face teaching, or a supplement to it. Teachers need support to know how to use online tools in non-didactic ways, including opportunities for student collaboration and dialogue, student-centred approaches to synchronous and asynchronous online learning, and ways to target higher-order knowledge and skills.

The project raised wider questions too, particularly about the nature and purpose of the subject of English: all of our participants were targeting traditional forms of literacy in their teaching, following a national curriculum that is at odds with the broader, multimodal literacies operating in digital environments (Gillen, 2014).

The resilience and adaptability that teachers have demonstrated during this time has been remarkable. Our research presents just a snapshot of a time near the start of the pandemic, and we know that pedagogical practices in our participating schools have already moved on. We see an opportunity now to capitalise on what one participant characterised as a renewed ‘thirst for pedagogical knowledge’ among teachers, an opportunity to explore and develop effective approaches to online teaching which consider the specific needs of subject disciplines. Teaching online and remotely is likely to be a feature of education in the future. The task is now to ensure that teachers have the knowledge and skills to support and nurture learners, and to provide a high-quality, intellectually stimulating education for all.



References

Cullinane, C., & Montacute, R. (2020). Research brief: April 2020: COVID-19 and social mobility impact brief# 1: School shutdown. Sutton Trust. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/35356/1/COVID-19-Impact-Brief-School-Shutdown.pdf

Gillen, J. (2014). Digital literacies. Routledge.

Gordon, J. (2019). Pedagogic literary narration in theory and action. L1 Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 19, 1–31. https://doi.org/10.17239/L1ESLL-2019.19.01.11

Moss, G., Allen, R., Bradbury, A., Duncan, S., Harmey, S., & Levy, R. (2020). Primary teachers’ experience of the COVID-19 lockdown: Eight key messages for policymakers going forward. Institute for Education International Literacy Centre. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10103669/1/Moss_DCDT%20Report%201%20Final.pdf

Newman, R., & Watson, A. (2020). Shaping spaces: Teachers’ orchestration of metatalk about written text. Linguistics and Education, 60, 100860. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2020.100860

O’Sullivan, K. A., & Goodwyn, A. (2020). Contested territories: English teachers in Australia and England remaining resilient and creative in constraining times. English in Education, 54(3), 224–238. https://doi.org/10.1080/04250494.2020.1793667

Scully, D., Lehane, P., & Scully, C. (2021). ‘It is no longer scary’: Digital learning before and during the Covid-19 pandemic in Irish secondary schools. Technology, Pedagogy and Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/1475939X.2020.1854844

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