How Michaela uses technology to teach while closed

Posted on 22nd April 2020

Posted by Alex Blackburn

Michaela Community School is an ‘outstanding’-rated free school in London. Serving many disadvantaged pupils, the school’s first GCSE results last year were four times higher than the national average.

I spoke to Izzy Rice, second in charge of English at the school, to learn how technology has enabled Michaela’s pupils to continue to receive a good education throughout the school closures.

One of the most important elements of Michaela’s success is an emphasis on structure and behaviour. How can you be sure that pupils are maintaining this when they are not at school? 

This is a difficult time for schools everywhere. It is impossible to fully replicate the same conditions you have in a school through technology and remote learning, but our kids need structure and we are working hard to keep that in place through a combination of technology and pastoral support.

Because of the type of school we are, we do not shy away from using data to hold pupils to account. We have a powerful culture at our school that encourages pupils to have extremely high standards for themselves; undoubtedly part of our success with technology comes from our pupils being used to being held to account. When we bring up that they have not done their homework, we know the vast majority will do it next time. That in itself has put us in good stead for dealing with the closure of our school in this difficult and uncertain time.

Mobilising our pupils to work hard at home has been crucial. During lockdown, provided you are not squeamish about telling children they are not working as hard as you know they could be, it is very powerful to be able to tell them that you have data showing they are not putting in the effort. To get that data, we have been using technology to set and monitor work.

As a teacher in the classroom, you are constantly glancing around the room checking up on your pupils to ensure your class are really ‘with you’. While this is impossible to replicate when we don’t have the children in front of us, it is possible at least in part to use data to perform a similar function, to address low effort but also to praise those who are working really hard. I can see who is putting in effort and who is not. This is a really great tool for praise, especially during lockdown when they’re not getting the recognition they’re used to from their teachers. For example, looking through assignments I can say to a pupil that I can see they have worked for four hours and persevered when they got stuck. That’s a really powerful tool in our toolbox during lockdown.

How are your teachers using technology to ensure their pupils are working hard?

It varies by subject, but for English we are setting work on CENTURY and Google Classroom. We are setting weekly work, incorporating CENTURY into that. Alongside that we have set up e-tutor groups, delegating pupils to members of staff, who will have weekly catch-ups over the phone with all members of their e-tutor group. In these conversations, they discuss how the pupils are progressing with their work and any issues they have encountered, as well as providing pastoral support. In these meetings, staff use the data from CENTURY to inform their conversations with children and hold those kids to account for what they have been doing at home.

It all comes down to the relationships teachers have with their pupils. This is extremely important when it comes to motivating pupils to work hard when they’re at home and on their own time. CENTURY really helps us with this aspect, because you can look at a particular pupil’s work and, when feeding back to the pupil, you can be incredibly specific about what they have done well and where they can improve. Being able to make kids feel successful by saying you can see their hard work really helps encourage them. Their teachers can set them goals to achieve, while their tutors can use the data from CENTURY to praise and motivate them, or challenge them if needed. 

The big challenge we are all facing is how to keep kids motivated and ensure the work they are doing is useful and CENTURY provides a good foothold for that.

How are you using data to hold students accountable?

While it is of course impossible to replicate our usual approach at Michaela, CENTURY has been very useful as it gives a really clear picture of how the pupils are getting on at home. It tells us exactly how fast they work, how much content they have covered, what they have struggled with, what they have forgotten and remembered, and what they know as a result of covering a specific set of topics. We look at the data in forensic detail which has helped us a lot. 

Regardless of age, kids tend to see things as quite black and white – no matter how nuanced the feedback, broadly pupils will feel they have either done ‘well’ or ‘badly’ in an assignment. With this in mind, teachers do of course need to be judicious when using data to give pupils feedback. There’s two sides to it – the data you present to the child, and the data you use as staff to analyse performance. When using data to talk to pupils, you have to have a clear message for them that they can easily digest, whether that is ‘your effort wasn’t good enough this week’ or ‘you’ve done an amazing job, well done!’. When talking to pupils it’s better to use ‘headlines’ like these, and simplify the data you have on their performance in an assignment. However, when using data between staff, the abundance of information is useful for us to draw conclusions about how the kids are getting on each week, allowing us to adapt as we go. 

What has lockdown taught you about the role technology has to play in education once we go back to normal?

It is difficult to say how things will change once we go back to normal. I believe there is a ‘grass is always greener’ narrative that exists about technology in education, that it is well on the way to replacing the more traditional forms of teaching. But while technology undoubtedly has a place in education, it is not a panacea. I feel I speak for a lot of people working in education when I say that the current situation, where schools are closed across the world, has really cemented the fact technology can never fully replace the full school experience.

That said, there is definitely a big case for the use of technology as a supplement to teaching and as an aid to the delivery/consolidation of curriculum content. We used CENTURY long before lockdown started, mostly for homework tasks, and it has fitted into our curriculum really well. We are not a school that leans much on technology, but there is definitely space for incorporating solutions like CENTURY across schools. Will or should technology radically change education? No, but that’s not what we are after – you cannot replace classroom learning, but you can support and supplement it with technology.

How do you see technology working side-by-side with traditional teaching?

The word is ‘consolidation’. As I’ve mentioned, we used CENTURY for a substantial period of time prior to schools closing in the UK. Taking lockdown out of the equation, the reason why we like CENTURY is that it is a very good way of consolidating the learning that happens in the classroom. 

From our use of CENTURY so far, we’ve found it is a great way to ensure our children are working hard outside the classroom and are remembering the information they need to remember, in a way that allows us to remain very ‘hands on’. The platform works well to support learning and provide a degree of oversight for teachers.

Based on your experience as a teacher and what you have learned through lockdown, what advice would you give to schools and families for making a success out of the closures?

To stick with a much-overused phrase, these are unprecedented times. When ‘normal’ is taken away, the most important thing (for both adults and children alike, I would argue!) is to find routine and structure where you can. School work can provide a degree of much needed normality for kids in this time of uncertainty. School communities are ultimately big families: the priority for all of us is to make sure our families stay happy, stay healthy and stay safe.

CENTURY is available for free for both schools and families during the school closures. Learn more about how CENTURY can supercharge your students’ learning here.

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