Hybrid lessons….three weeks in

Do I look at the eight or nine faces spread evenly across the classroom, or do I stare into the lens at the top of my laptop?  Do I try and spread my attention between the pupils physically present with me and those sitting at home?  Do I offer the same materials and activities to all or do I differentiate between the two learning contexts?  All hugely relevant to my current educational situation.  Welcome to hybrid teaching!

A couple of weeks ago the Dutch government decided that it was time for the secondary schools to return to the classroom.  Or at least, to return to physical lessons for all children for at least one day a week.  If we set aside for a moment whether this was the right decision or not for a moment and focus on the practicalities and how hybrid lessons are working in particular for us in the art department.

My school like many in the Netherlands has chosen to split each class in three groups.  Each day, one of the groups are at school and physically present in the classroom, and the other two groups are at home and following the lesson online.

The net result for the teacher is a sort of split personality of teaching practice, a near impossible challenge of knowing where to aim your focus, and yet another opportunity to overhaul teaching material to give it a chance of working in this new situation. 

Three weeks in, and at least for me in my art room role, a few things have become clear:

  • After the months of totally online lessons and having to rely only on materials that the pupils have available to the at home, I want to offer those physically present the chance to work with some of the more interesting materials that we have on offer at school.
  • Spreading your attention evenly between the two groups is near impossible.  As a result, hardly surprisingly, you find yourself participating in small talk with those present, and risking neglecting those at home. Avoiding creating “second-class learners” at home is a challenge.  The home-based groups receive certainly less attention than they got while the teaching was fulling online.
  • I have decided that I simply need two assignments for each class.  One for home lessons days and a second (related, but different in terms of materials and practicalities) for the at school days.  The home assignment is designed in such a way that pupils can essentially get on with it independently, while I give more attention to those present in the classroom.

This set up of split assignments seemed to me to be the only way to go, especially with classes where there are sometimes ten pupils in class and twenty following at home. 

The only exception to this rule has interestingly been the youngest class that I teach.  Twenty-six 12-year-olds do seem able to be taught in one group.  That has been partly down to the assignments that I have been doing with them, but a bigger factor here has been the openness and chatty active participation levels of the younger children in comparison to their camera shy 15- or 16-year-old fellow pupils. 

So, my conclusions after these first three weeks of hybrid education?  Well, when looked at in terms of the quality of the education being offered (in terms of content) has not been improved, when compared to the fully online lessons. 

What we have now is a hugely complex learning situation where everyone is battling to find focus and the best way to do things.  But was this change to hybrid ever actually about the content?

It feels more like it has been an attempt to offer a degree of ‘normality’ in our pandemic world.  A kind of ‘look everyone, the schools are open again’ sort of statement.  Although the more pushed narrative is one aimed at increasing the social contact of our young people.  I have no problem with this second perspective, our pupils need to meet up, to socialise and re-establish old weekly rhythms. 

However, the ”return to normality” viewpoint is considerably more problematic, especially in the context of rising infection rates and neighbouring countries being still very much in lockdown.  Could it just be that there was a political motivation to the reopening that was connected to the general election last week? 

A rarity in education

I have worked in mainstream education for 17 years and I have just participated in something of a unique experience, a three day, uninterrupted training course for the very first time. In fact, since qualifying to teach, I have never had any more than a single isolated day of training and more often than not, any specific extra input comes in the form of just an afternoon clamped on the end of a morning of teaching. The reasons for this restriction is either financial or, and this is more often the case where I work, the fact that lessons for our pupils are cancelled. I understand this reasoning up to a point.  However, really the question in the end is; is the hugely limited and disjointed scope of on the job training in education actually not a far bigger problem than that of a number of cancelled lessons?

As it happens I haven’t been on the receiving end of the training during the first three days of this week. I have been giving the course, together with Cathy, a colleague form New Zealand to a group of ten other teachers from our school who will be teaching in English as part of our bilingual team for the first time after the summer break. It’s been a fantastic three days.  Hard work for all of those involved, challenging for many, fun, engaging, thought provoking and certainly good for team building. The progress made by the group has been amazing to see, confidence has been built and there is a growing belief that they really can teach their classes of Dutch twelve year olds using a good level of English.

The space we have been given this time has allowed us to deliver information, to use numerous didactic approaches, allow discussions to take place, create space for actual lesson material to be developed and presented and above all work on the verbal presentation skills that are necessary for a teacher teaching in a second language. What you might call a ‘critical learning mass’ has been built up and will hopefully be carried forward into the next school year. Way more common in education are training sessions that are offered in an intensive two to three hour session that throw a series of ideas at participants that work as a flash in the pan creating momentary enthusiasm only for the input to largely disapate due to a lack of follow up as the teacher is once again left to their own devices to try and find a way of making use of the material.  I’m a pretty conscientious worker but I recognize this tendency for good input is simply lost because it is offered initially in such an isolated island of training. So what would I propose as an improvement on the current situation? Well, on the basis of the last three days I would definitely say that twice a year, a training session of  two or three days could be fantastic and actually have the chance of producing something truly effective. Yes, the pupils would miss five days of lessons, but if the quality of the education on offer was significantly improved might that ground not simply be made up in another way? Schools have significant pools of experts and examples of good practice, but if we are honest it is mostly only the pupils who happen to be in the right classes who are the beneficiaries. The spreading and sharing of ideas, material and teaching skills is something that all educational institutions probably have to work on.

Inward and outward looking classes

Parents and teachers alike will recognize the often observed tendency in younger teenagers in particular that they sometimes seem to think they are the center of the universe. Yes, we all feel it from time to time, but generally I don’t experience this sort of individualism too often. Many young people are fun to be with, give you the energy to teach and respond well to the world around them.
imageHaving said all that, the garden is not always rosy in educationland. Why is it that I find myself looking forward to teaching one class and feel frustration and irritation with another of the same age? The lesson material is the same, the assignments and activities the same, even the teacher is the same. It is easy to simply say that the pupils themselves are the only variable that has changed, it can’t be me can it! But it is of course a little more complex. It is to do with personalities, theirs and mine, combinations and contrasts in how characters, individuals and groups combine and interact.
For me personally, if, with a particular class, this sort of battlefield of differences occurs it is normally in the second year or early third year (ages 13-15). By the end of the third year (perhaps when they are a little older) we’re normally all the best of friends. Whenever a sort of conflict does arise I find myself trying to analyze it to work out what exactly is going on (it’s perhaps revealing that I never do this when it’s going well!). Individually I rarely have any significant issues, the pupils are fine when dealt with on a one to one basis. So what is it that goes on with them as a group?
It is undoubtedly not always the case, but so often I find myself coming to the same conclusion, a class is either an inward or outward looking group.
An outward looking group is one that is interested in each other, the broader class, well beyond just their best friends. They are interested in what they are actually in school to do, follow lessons and make social contact with an extended school society. They are open to try and get what they can from this. They are normally quite good at relating lesson material to the world around them. They are not necessarily especially good at their school work, although their attitude is likely to be beneficial to them. These qualities are all very positive, but perhaps the most important of all in terms of my experience as a teacher of the class is that the are (or at least seem to be) interested in me. This interest goes more than just being the channel through which lesson material flows. It allows a different and more complex relationship to be built within the classroom that is undoubtedly ultimately beneficial to all.
The inward looking group may academically be very strong. They may be able to score high grades. But trying to get them to exit the world of their little clusters of closest friends, there is the challenge. As a teacher it often feels like you are teaching through a faulty intercom system. Reactions from the class are crackly and hugely delayed if they come at all.
Maybe I’ve had a bad day, but I do like a class where I can discuss the football from the previous evening, our musical preferences or where we (yes all of us) have been on holiday. Sometimes an inward looking class does, with time, become an outward looking one, but not always it would seem. You do your best, you engage with those open for it, thankfully dynamics of groups do change over the months and years. But there may inevitably be a few that will leave secondary school still thinking that the universe revolves around them.