Lessons learnt from educating through a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges - as well as opportunities - for the education sector. How do schools, teachers, and those training the next generation of teachers, build on the positive takeaways that have been learned?

From dealing with school closures and home schooling to being hailed national heroes, teaching staff have been in the media spotlight during the pandemic.

Without a doubt, teachers have faced a huge challenge, from being key workers on the frontline to adjusting to new ways of working, they have shown dedication and courage, prioritising the nation’s children through a time of real crisis.

“Teaching has always been a profession where you have got to be resilient, flexible and adaptable,” says Dr Sarah Charles, Head of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby. “But Covid-19 took that to completely new levels.

“The pandemic, while challenging, has given us an opportunity to reset and recalibrate – it’s allowed schools, teachers and universities training future teachers to look at what we have done in the past and at how we are going to improve and adapt our teaching and learning in the future.”

Despite the incredible challenges, what lessons have been learnt by schools and their teaching staff during Covid-19, and what positives will be staying in the long-term?

Upping the digital game

Dr Lisa-Maria Muller, Education Research Manager at the Chartered College of Teaching, together with her colleague Gemma Goldenberg, have recently conducted research on effective approaches to distance learning during the pandemic. She says that digital skills and access to technology have presented both a series of challenges but also benefits to teaching staff and pupils alike.

“Our research showed both teachers and students’ digital skills developed so much more quickly as a result of Covid-19. Some schools said it may have taken years to get to that point of digital provision and literacy that they have achieved now as a result of distance learning.

“Anything around effective distance learning requires the technological skills and availability of digital technology. It is important that teachers can access the necessary technology, but also that they know what effective approaches to distance learning can look like.

“In addition, although we may think of students as digital natives, it does not necessarily mean that they know how to effectively use technology for their learning. They may be familiar with lots of different apps but may not know how to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, for example.

“That's something that really came through in our research, with teachers saying that they want to focus on basic digital skills more in their curricula going forward.”

Jane Calladine, Executive Headteacher of Parkview Primary School and Redwood Primary School, both in Derby, agrees and says the shift to digital devices at the schools she oversees had been “sped up massively” as a result of Covid-19.

“Had there not have been a pandemic I don’t think we would have got the same momentum. It is now for schools to continue using the digital skills and platforms they have become accustomed to. It’s very important that we don’t let this lapse and that we continue to give homework online and keep solving any digital or technical issues, so children and their families don’t give up and that they keep learning too.”

The shift to teaching school children digitally has been a learning curve for how the University educates trainee teachers too, says Dr Charles. Rather than solely focusing on preparing teachers to deliver the subject knowledge they need to know, the focus would now be much more on equipping them with the digital skills to work online.

“Moving forward there will be more of an emphasis on how we prepare our future teachers to use technology in its own right to support, enhance or transform teaching and learning. The benefit of using technology in this way is something we cannot lose.”

girl waering headphone studying online

Understanding how children learn online

As well as the platforms used to teach, the pandemic has also provided an opportunity to take a closer look at how children learn.

Dr Muller says her research identifies that one of the biggest benefits of online learning during the pandemic had been the ability for teachers to record lessons, meaning students could learn when it best suited them, offering a more flexible approach.

“The biggest benefit reported was the ability to record lessons and video content for students to be able to watch again, so students who may not necessarily grasp a concept first-time round could then go and listen to it again and stop it when they needed to. Our research showed that this was also really important for students with certain special educational needs. Teachers, particularly those working in special schools, said they were considering how they could build on those advantages going forward.”

Naomi Scott, who is studying for a Masters in Education (SEND) with QTS at the University of Derby, agrees and says: “Learning how to create effective online resources was key to surviving placement last year. However, this wasn’t the only thing. Understanding how to foster learning environments where the children felt safe and listened to was also a really positive experience.”

Creativity inside and outside of the classroom

Turning ordinary face-to-face lessons into digital learning on screen as a result of school closures and government restrictions required teachers to adapt their ways of teaching.

According to research by the University of Exeter and The Centre for Education and Youth in May 2020, teachers who were delivering lessons remotely during lockdown “were being more creative and inventive when it comes to lesson planning and problem solving”.

Tom Silkstone, also a student trainee teacher at Derby, agrees and says the pandemic brought the need for creativity during his placement to the fore.  

“Creativity is so important for lesson planning,” he explains. “It’s vital that activities draw on the context and experiences in which the children find themselves for it to be most relevant and powerful for them.”

Similarly, Dr Charles says the pandemic has made academics training future teachers at the University’s Institute of Education re-think the tasks they ask students to do in the classroom, ensuring they are meaningful for students’ own development too.

“During the pandemic, because a lot of our trainee teachers couldn’t actually go into classrooms, we had to revise our teaching,” she explains. “For example, if the student had a copy of their placement school’s improvement plan, we asked them, using their experience and subject knowledge, to create resources that would actually impact on the school even though they weren’t necessarily in the classroom.

“Social distancing and the need to be outside has further highlighted that the best resource cupboard is outdoors, so we have really been encouraging our students to look at activities that can be done outside too.

“Making learning as real-life as possible – problem-based learning – is another positive we have learnt from all of this. That real hands-on experience is something that will become even more important – it was crucial during the pandemic and it’s something we mustn’t leave behind.”

This is echoed by Jane Calladine, who adds: “I’ve been surprised at how many brilliant ways teachers have found to get round things that might have been problems because the children weren’t face-to-face with them. They have been incredibly creative, from delivering items of PE kit to children and doing online physical activities with them, to creating all kinds of ways that the children can interact and share their work and get responses from the teachers.”

Headshot image of academic Dr Sarah Charles

Social distancing and the need to be outside has further highlighted that the best resource cupboard is outdoors, so we have really been encouraging our students to look at activities that can be done outside too.

Dr Sarah Charles
Head of the Institute of Education at the University of Derby

Receiving feedback

Another positive lesson learnt from Covid-19 has been the way in which feedback is delivered to schoolchildren, with a need to find new and more innovative ways to update children and parents on their progress.  

“What Covid-19 has shown us as a teacher education team and, indeed many schools, is a change of mindset with regards to marking books,” says Dr Charles. “Traditionally, you would have a teacher marking up to 120 books a night, writing copious amounts of feedback, and sometimes asking children to write responses to the feedback. Covid has demonstrated that you don’t need to be doing that in order for a child to progress, it’s made everyone rethink what quality feedback is and question whether it always has to be written.

“In our sessions on assessment, marking and feedback, our emphasis is on looking at a range of ways of ensuring progress, not an emphasis on marking and writing lengthy comments for children.”

This has been similarly highlighted in the research by the Chartered College of Teaching. “Interestingly, many teachers said they adopted verbal feedback during the pandemic, such as recording feedback and sending it to students, and that’s something that many of them want to continue using,” explains Dr Muller. “This is in addition to more automated quizzes, and self-marked assessments that they said were handy to check on students’ understanding. These were things that many said they had done non-digitally prior to distance learning but would want to continue doing digitally going forwards because it’s much easier.”

Teaching as a career

As well as lessons learnt in the classroom, has the pandemic impacted perceptions of the teaching profession?

The Chartered College of Teaching’s report, ‘Education in times of crisis: Teachers’ views on distance learning and school reopening plans during Covid-19’, says the pandemic made teachers review their own importance: “This unprecedented situation has led teachers to reflect on what can be learnt from this crisis…For many teachers, it has cemented their belief in the strength, adaptability and importance of the teaching profession.”

In agreement, Dr Charles says despite the challenges, teaching is a rewarding career, with the pandemic further highlighting this: “The teaching profession has been heavily criticised over the years. When lockdown happened a lot of people, including parents, had a new-found respect for teachers and the profession. Trainee teachers and teachers can have such a positive impact on a child’s life. Covid-19 meant teachers re-gained a sense of purpose because they knew that their role was so important.”

This is a similar view to Tom, who says the pandemic has taught him just how valuable schools and the teaching profession are: “Schools really are the pillars of our communities, providing much-needed stability and support in a time of crisis.”

A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) into the impact of Covid-19 on Initial Teacher Training found that there was a spike in applications to study teaching during the pandemic.

Jack Worth, Lead Economist at NFER, says Covid-19 had caused the labour market to become very uncertain, therefore many people were opting to choose teaching as a career.

Now, however, he says “normal” levels of applications have resumed and recruitment and retention is still an issue: “We are going back to the situation again where we have a strong outside labour market, not enough people coming through who want to train to become teachers and potentially as many teachers leaving the profession as before.”

To help counter this, in October, the government announced that more than £300m would be invested to help attract and develop world-class teachers and leaders, with bursaries being offered to graduates applying to train as teachers in high-demand subjects.

“This announcement has come at the right time,” says Jane. “The pandemic has demonstrated to an even greater extent just how valuable teachers are. We need to recognise what these teachers are doing is really important job and we need to support and help them.”

Headshot image of University of Derby student Tom Silkstone

Schools really are the pillars of our communities, providing much-needed stability and support in a time of crisis.

Tom Silkstone
University of Derby student

Staying future-focused

Moving forwards, how do schools, teachers, and those training the next generation of teachers, build on what has been learnt during the pandemic?

“Our students have shown unprecedented levels of tenacity, resilience and commitment during times of extreme challenge,” says Dr Charles. “They have proven to be fleet of foot, adapting to periods of significant and rapid change. We have one of the most digitally-savvy cohorts who have proven that they are well equipped to meet the demands of the teaching profession.

“The challenge is ensuring that our university teacher training programmes, moving forward, retain what we have learnt this year to ensure that our students continue to develop their flexibility, adaptability and resilience in a profession that’s already challenging.

“I hope that schools reflect on the innovative teaching strategies they employed throughout the pandemic, recognising what has worked really well for their children, holding on to these practices – the ‘Covid keepers’.”

Written by Kelly Tyler