Ten things we learnt about learning online

For young people across the world, 2020 has become the year of online learning. It was never a deliberate strategy, simply a necessary response to a global pandemic that has changed so much. 

At George Watson’s College, we were helped by the fact that our pupils and teachers were not new to the benefits of digital technology to support learning and teaching. 

We had to do things differently, adapt quickly, learn what worked in a situation that none of us had experienced before,  all whilst understanding the significant pressure families were under. 

Therefore, we developed a whole school approach and a set of core objectives. 

None of this was about having pupils sitting in front of a video camera all day, but about building a way of working which supported learning, as well as the health and wellbeing of our pupils. 

Wellbeing remained our number one priority during what has been an incredibly testing time for our pupils.

To understand more about learning and teaching in a lockdown, we spoke to our Head of Modern Studies and Politics, Fiona Taylor, and Head of the Junior School, George Salmond, to get their insight into what Watson’s learned about delivering digital learning and teaching. Here are their top ten takeaways...

1. A different approach to teaching was needed 

It doesn’t matter if you have a class of twenty Primary 1 children, or half a dozen pupils taking an Advanced Higher course, you simply can’t just go online and replicate.

Teaching isn’t always about the big bang, but about the subtlety of understanding when someone needs help and support, to be encouraged to step up, to celebrate success or learn from failure. Putting a webcam between a teacher and a pupil doesn’t help that process. 

It’s even more complicated when you consider that many families had to change significant parts of their routines to cope with parents working from home. English for Senior 1 on Day 4 of our cycle at 8.55am just wasn’t going to work for everyone. 

This meant a significant culture change and a very different way of working

2. Learning is about skills, as well a knowledge 

We have redeveloped our Senior 1 and Senior 2 curriculum in the last two years, and that process made all the difference. 

Pupils don’t just learn ‘facts’ in curricular silos but build up core skills that help them learn how to learn. That exists across multiple subjects such as Modern Studies and Politics, Economics and Business Studies, History, Geography and English (amongst others). 

At Watson’s, that means three vital key stages that form a rubric: make a point, give a piece of evidence, and expand; in short: point, evidence, expand. 

This means we’re helping our pupils develop tangible skills beyond the traditional teacher-pupil relationship. When you start to understand how you learn, yourself, you’ve got a better chance of understanding what you are learning. 

Given more independent learning was going to be needed in the circumstances, we were pleased to see that this approach gave pupils a better starting point for the challenges ahead. 

Indeed, ‘independent learning’ is also a key skill for pupils in Senior 4 to Senior 6). It’s a vital part of tertiary education, and whilst the circumstances were challenging, it did provide pupils at these stages with an opportunity to take more responsibility, within plenty of support from teaching staff to facilitate this.

3. Think about different learning styles 

Everyone learns differently. That’s reality. Some of us listen, others read, plenty of people need to see. 

Our teachers quickly adapted lessons. For some pupils written instructions worked well, for others they found that really challenging. 

That’s where Loom came in. Teachers were able to record 3-5 minute instructional films, whilst screencasting supporting Google Slides. By creating these resources ‘on-demand’, pupils were able to take on a task at a point that worked during their day via Google Classroom.

4. Flexibility is key

This one was particularly important for younger children in our Junior School and relates back to the first point that you can’t just replicate classroom learning.

The reality is you cannot just set out a timetable for a Primary 3 pupil and expect a parent to pick up the pieces as a pseudo-teacher; being a teacher requires a specific set of skills. Considering each family's own circumstances, we realised early on that we needed to create a wide range of options for everyone. 

In Junior School, we released weekly year-group plans on Google Slides every Sunday. This included a set of different age-appropriate lessons and resources to cover literacy, numeracy, and a range of other topics. In all, there were four lessons available for each day, but it was up to pupils (and parents!) to determine how or when to participate and complete tasks. 

Practicing addition and subtraction

Resources included teacher videos and assemblies, as well as lots of useful links and information. Classes also met using Google Meet, latterly in smaller sizes. These sessions were spread out to enable children to join in when they could.

Additional year group drop-in sessions were also available for our pupils who required extra support. Our Additional Support for Learning teachers also worked with small groups, for example maintaining reading groups. 

This on-demand/live mix was really important to ensure that everyone could access learning at some point in a way which suited each family’s circumstances.

5. Video conferencing isn’t everything... 

Anyone reading this who has spent the last few months working from home can relate to being ‘Zoom-ed Out’. 

Why should it be any easier for children? 

There’s no question some parents would have liked pupils to have been on video meetings (or lessons) all day. 

We realised quickly that live video calls are good in smaller groups, but for some pupils (particularly depending on their age) they find this type of engagement really challenging. 

So yes, we used live video calls regularly throughout the week (don’t think for a moment we didn’t value vital face to face time), but we didn’t put our whole stock on the basis of live learning. 

Being a little more choosy also helped us introduce new, more innovative teaching methods, too…

6. There ain’t no party like a Netflix Party (with added Tik Tok) 

You read that right. 

Our Modern Studies and Politics pupils, at Senior 4 and Senior 5 (who would ordinarily have been preparing to undertake examinations) were encouraged to mix things up. Using some of Google’s clever browser extensions, we were able to create collaborative viewing experiences. 

None more so than Netflix Party. Pupils would watch a film or documentary (something they would also experience in the classroom), but this time from home. Their teacher can control the video, with a chat window available to discuss points of view while you all watch in separate locations: this allowed classes to maintain the same sort of debate and collaboration they would usually experience in the physical classroom. 

Kialo Edu - a clever online debating platform - enabled pupils to tackle big subjects, and reason to one side or other of a discussion. 

Another useful tool for pupils studying Modern Studies, Mentimeter also came in handy. An online presentation tool that allows you to ask questions and collate the data from responses into charts and word walls, which then facilitated discussions during the weekly Google Meets. 

Tik-Tok isn’t the sound of a clock (let’s be cool, here), but the social media dance craze used by kids all over the world. As part of our assessment for learning, pupils used this, alongside the other tools we’ve mentioned on this page, to help demonstrate what and how they have learnt, often via fantastic presentations delivered with great confidence. 

7. You can still learn the flute

Or (essentially) any other musical instrument.

Your wee one is a dab hand on the recorder, has the gentlest touch on the piano, or knows how to get a party started on the drums. 

Good news! Our specialist music teachers quickly adapted and realised it was possible to teach different instruments to our pupils. 

Again, it’s not the same as the real-world and you cannot quite provide the nuanced technical support necessary when learning a new skill. That said, around Edinburgh and beyond there was still music and plenty of it. 

Many of our pupils performed on Thursday nights as part of  Clap for Our Carers during the darkest days of lockdown. 

Let them play...so we did! 

8. Remember we’re a community 

It’s been a really difficult time, frightening for many. For plenty of us, the uncertainty has been hard to cope with. 

That’s why community matters. At Watson’s, we saw a community inspired to get involved both through things like SeeSaw in our Junior School, and across social media (for older pupils). 

Once George Salmond was challenged by one pupil to play the recorder standing on his head (as she had done) the floodgates opened. Some amazing challenges were brought to life, and off their own back, pupils started to raise funds for charity. 

But why is this important? Our staff were convinced of the need to make sure that children felt connected with their school. If they are happy and settled they are in a better place to do the academic work, and we understood that wasn’t an easy thing, right now. 

9. Some things won’t change back 

We think quite a few things will evolve in the future. Culturally this experience has brought about changes in learning, which have been coming for some time, but were perhaps accelerated. 

For example, we are now much more used to launching  material electronically for study by the class before a lesson rather than just setting homework afterwards. This can be a hugely effective way of ensuring pupils are ready to take on new concepts and ideas when they are introduced. 

The move from jotters to ‘e-jotters’ (Google Docs) is likely to mean that even when back in school we’ll use less paper. 

This approach isn’t just about the environmental benefits, but because it enables more real-time feedback to pupils. Teachers are able to check progress at any time (not just when the books are handed in!), support pupils and give extremely precise feedback because of the way collaborative tools work, not dissimilarly to many workplaces. 

We also think that assessment for learning will continue to evolve. Tech is opening up opportunities for different ways to assess the impact of learning itself. That might include using data to build a more precise picture of progress, offering a more targeted analysis of a pupil’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Change is always difficult, because you can never be absolutely sure it will be for the better. This pandemic has shown that - just as we encourage all of our pupils - we can be fearless about new ideas and ways of working. 

10. Be ready for what’s next - we can do it! 

It can be hard to prepare for what’s next, never more so during these uncertain times. 

We recognise that many pupils will be really nervous about returning to campus next month. It’s entirely understandable. 

For those in the Junior School, we started that process in June, by bringing in half-classes to meet their new teacher for session 2020/21. 

For some, it wasn’t an easy experience (nobody was forced to come) but it enabled our staff to understand better some of the challenges which we will face as we start to come together on campus again. 

Our pupils have shown enormous resilience in the last few months; our teaching staff have never been more proud of their efforts. We know there are more challenges ahead, but we’ve learnt that we can all adapt, so when the time comes to be together again, we’ll be ready to support each other.