Remote teaching: an opportunity for conceptual learning to flourish

Before I try to switch into holiday mode (whatever that means these days), I am giving myself a bit of space to reflect after an intense 3 weeks. I am trying to reframe my thinking to consider opportunities rather than dwell on disappointments or unmet expectations (I hear the echo of an AtL here…). I can’t help but think (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) that teaching remotely, despite its many challenges, offers us a real opportunity to develop students’ conceptual understandings.

As classroom dynamics shift to more a student-centred, self-directed approach to learning, I have come to accept that I cannot cover content in the way that I usually do. Or at least, I need to be more strategic about what content I do focus on. So the conceptual lens becomes even more important: it’s about zooming out, rather than zooming in, and really considering the big picture. Why this text or this topic? How can we design learning to promote transfer between texts and/or topics?

My Grade 6 colleagues will start a unit on Shakespeare soon after we resume online learning after the holiday. The focus text for the unit is The Tempest, but having left all of the physical copies of the text (the adapted Shakespeare Stories version, supplemented with extracts from the original script) back at school, we needed to quickly adjust our plans. So now students will explore different performances of the play: an RSC production that students can stream on Digital Theatre Plus (a resource I can highly recommend if you have the budget for it); the 2010 film adaptation starring Helen Mirren, which they can access on Amazon Prime; and even a CBeebies version that students can view online. Ultimately, I think shifting the focus like this actually improves the unit and allows for a more meaningful exploration of the key concept (Creativity), the related concepts (context and theme) and the global context (Orientation in space and time). By examining different artistic interpretations, the students can really unpack the statement of inquiry: Some stories magically travel through time and space.

My own Grade 9 students have just started a unit on gothic fiction, and our current situation has meant that we are spending less time on a thorough examination of each individual text and more time considering the commonalities across texts (including film as text) in support of our inquiry focus: Advances in scientific and technical innovation have inspired creativity throughout the ages. Students will explore extracts from Rebecca, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, and other gothic works and then engage in their own independent reading circles to dig deeper into the SoI. They will use the knowledge they gain on gothic tropes such as atmosphere, setting and point of view to construct their own gothic stories. The individual works are not the main focus here; they are tools to help facilitate students’ own creativity.

Of course, there is always a flip side. In this remote learning environment, when many of us are trying to balance personal demands with our professional obligations, there is the danger of just trying to fill students’ time with with lots of content; in other words, assigning busy work or tasks which don’t serve the big picture. If we’re not conscientious, conceptual learning could flounder.

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