Accompanying podcast episode:
How many of us are fully aware of the damage caused to learning by lockdowns and school closures?
For me personally, I was surprised to learn that K–12 student learning was significantly impacted by online teaching, with students being on-average five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020/21 academic year (according to McKinsey Insights).
When we think about this in real-terms, for instance, many of our students experienced their last ‘normal’ academic year in 2018/2019. Many schools have seen their teaching disrupted for at least three academic years. This has hit some students harder than others – many Year 13 cohorts in British schools this year, for example, have never had an external examination during the whole of their high school education to-date. This is truly unprecedented.
Now that our students are, for the most part, back in school and should be learning on-site for the foreseeable future, it is important that we somehow ‘plug the holes’ in our learners’ incomplete knowledge and understanding. This extends to skills such as problem-solving, critical-thinking, metacognition and manual dexterity expressed through subjects like Design Technology, Science, Textiles, Electronics and Home Economics.
This brings me on to a pioneering strategy for facilitating the transition from online to hybrid to on-site learning which I believe should be aptly named the ‘ACE Method’: Action, Collaboration and Exploration.
Part One: Action
Our students have been stuck in front of computer screens for so long. Now it’s time to get them moving!
There a number of spatial learning strategies we can use to engage multiple areas of the brain. Activities such as the Human Graph and True or False Walls (please see the illustration below) are just two examples of simple things we can do in the classroom to turn everyday content into fun, interactive games that involve the students using their bodies in creative ways.
I wrote a separate blog post about spatial learning activities here. All of the activities described in that blog post can be applied to any subject area and require little-to-no resources and/or planning time.
In addition to spatial learning activities, think about interactive games which are not screen-based that you can implement. Such games are the tried-and-tested traditional teaching activities that have been around for decades. My personal favourite is ‘splat’, which is outlined in the illustration below:
You can watch a quick video of me playing splat with my students below:
There are many learning games we can play with our students that simply break the lesson down into fun, engaging ‘chunks’. These games combat boredom and act to improve knowledge retention.
I’ve written a separate blog post with descriptions of my top ten favorite games to play with students here. As with the spatial learning activities described earlier, these games can be applied to any subject area and require few-to-no resources and very little planning time (i.e. they’re awesome!).
One final thing to consider is ways to get your students gathering data and investigating things. Every subject can include some investigative work, even if it’s just carrying out surveys and interviews with other students. Such activities really do help to facilitate deep learning.
As a Science Teacher, I am used to guiding my students in the investigative design and data collection processes. Investigations in Science are basically a way to ‘test’ if the theory in the textbook is true, or false. Think of ways in which you can get your students to test the subject content you are teaching – you’ll often find that this is a very fun process. Better still – ask your students to come-up with ways in which they could test the central dogmas of your course.
Part 2: Collaboration
Whilst online systems like Google Meets did attempt to solve the student isolation problem during lockdown (e.g. via Breakout Rooms), no computerized system can fully replicate the experience of being physically in the classroom, working with your peers in a small group.
It’s important that we now start including even more groupwork activities in our lessons. Tons of research papers and top universities sing the praises of collaboration in the classroom, including the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University, who state that:
Properly structured, group projects can reinforce skills that are relevant to both group and individual work, including the ability to:
Eberly Center, Carnegie Mellon University, 2022, ‘What are the benefits of group work?’.
- Break complex tasks into parts and steps
- Plan and manage time
- Refine understanding through discussion and explanation
- Give and receive feedback on performance
- Challenge assumptions
- Develop stronger communication skills.
In fact, when students work together on a task/project that is well-planned and carefully executed, a large number of incredible things can happen:
- Positive group experiences have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention and overall success [Astin, 1993; Tinto, 1998; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2006].
- Group work can serve to motivate students, encourage active learning, and develop key communication, decision-making and critical thinking skills [University of Waterloo].
It is very important to stress again, however, that group tasks must be very well-planned, otherwise they can “frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time” [University of Waterloo].
I’ve written a separate blog post containing ten groupwork activities that can be applied to any subject area here. These activities have creativity at their core, and have all been field tested by me many times over (so I know that they work). However, as well as planning our group tasks/activities carefully, we must also consider a number of additional problems that may arise:
- Most classes of students contain ‘cliques’/friendship groups, and it’s not uncommon to find that some children have few, if any, ‘friends’ within the classroom. This is one reason why I almost always choose the groups for the students – usually by lining the students up and numbering them in random ways in order to group them together, This removes the natural stress that comes when students are asked to create their own groups.
- If you know your students really well, then you can group them by ability. If they need to present some slides at the end of their project, for example, then make sure that there is at least one good orator in the group. A tech-savvy student placed strategically in a group of students with weak IT skills may also be appropriate, for example.
- Think about the classroom space and simple things like how your tables are arranged. You might need to push tables together to encourage students within groups to actually face each other and talk, for example. It might be appropriate to allow groups to work in different areas of the school (make sure you have permission!) if what they’re doing is very active/loud, for example.
Part 3: Exploration
One key message I want to get across in this article is that it’s not always necessary to know everything about your subject, especially if you’re new to teaching it. When I first came to Thailand in 2008, for example, I was much less knowledgeable about Chemistry than I am now (I was a Biology Teacher in the UK). The strategy I adopted back then was this – I will learn with the students.
And that’s another key point that needs to be raised – it was difficult to encourage deep exploration when students were learning online – not least because the task outputs would often be handed in late, not handed in at all, be of varying quality and we could never be sure what kind of conditions the students were doing this work under at home.
So, get some fundamentals under your belt and think of ways to get your students to explore the topics they are learning. Get your students to use source material to:
- Create Google Slides presentations (these are great, by the way, as multiple students can work on the slides in real-time)
- Create a class quiz (e.g. a Kahoot!)
- Create infographics (don’t go with ‘posters’ – they’ve been done to death)
- Create a website or blog (Google Sites is brilliant for this, and is yet another reason why schools should take on Google Suite)
- Create models of the concepts (simple materials are all that’s needed – bottle caps, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, etc)
- Create a table display (e.g. for a Science Fair)
Try the I.E.S. Method for Exploration
Introduce the topic to the students via some kind of engaging starter activity (see my blog post on starter activities for some ideas to get you started). Use the three As (Assign, Analyse and Ask) where possible.
Give the students a ‘menu’ of different ways in which they can choose to explore the topic in a creative way (e.g. by creating a collaborative Google Slides presentation, making a Kahoot! quiz for the class to complete, designing an infographic, etc.)
Showcase the work to the class (or allow students to showcase their own work) so as to provide acknowledgement, a sense of accomplishment and a useful opportunity for class reflection. Do this important step the next lesson if time runs out, Do not skip this vital step.
It’s vital that we do our best to make-up for the physical time at school that our students have missed so much of. Of course, we’re not miracle workers, but if we can keep just three little words in our minds when we are planning and delivering our lessons then we’re going to make a big difference in our students lives: action, collaboration and exploration.