An online-learning journey
This year in response to the challenges posed by Covid-19, the Teacher Development Fund (TDF) will focus on exploring how blended approaches, combining digital and face to face delivery, can enhance teacher continuing professional development in arts-based learning. Johanne Clifton, TDF Advisory Group Member and Head of Curriculum and Virtual Learning for the Elliot Foundation describes her own online-learning journey.
Until recently, I have been the Executive Headteacher of Billesley Primary School in Birmingham. Our school has been on a journey over the years from the depths of ‘almost closure’ to a vibrant school where you can feel the buzz and sense of unity and purpose around the classrooms. The team has a powerful sense of vision and direction and staff work closely with a range of creative practitioners to challenge, support and develop their pedagogy.
Our work with the Teacher Development Fund during the pilot phase in 2016 on a programme called Performing Pedagogy was transformational not only in re-shaping our pedagogy through joint learning and reflection but also for us as leaders in understanding how much deeper teacher development and learning is when led by the staff themselves, supported by regular coaching and reflection.
I have, in the meantime, taken on a new job role, one that only a few months ago I would not have thought was for me. I am now Head of Curriculum and Virtual Learning for the Elliot Foundation, a large multi-academy trust working across three regions —London, West Midlands and East Anglia. To lead curriculum development has always been my dream job, to be honest, encouraging other school leaders and teachers to dig into the philosophy behind why they do what they do. Helping them to articulate what their hopes and ambitions for the children in their care are and using these to underpin the choices they make around the knowledge and skills they plan into their curriculum and pedagogy.
This is my passion…but virtual learning—I thought that this wasn’t for me.
Then the lockdown period began and I found myself in a difficult place emotionally. I felt trapped at home isolated from the job that I love and unable to see what worth I had and where I might add value. I began to follow the online continuing professional development (CPD) sessions led by ResearchEd, which were broadcast daily on YouTube. I became absorbed in learning myself—watching, reading and evaluating all of the information which I’d often seen in passing on Twitter but never took the time to think through fully. I read blogs, followed threads and learned new skills.
Online learning became a professional lifeline connecting me to communities of practice beyond my usual networks; allowing me to access training and expertise that I would not have otherwise engaged in; enabling me to learn at my own pace revisiting materials and content if required. It gave me an opportunity to explore topics and subjects that really interested me, pulling in content and resources to curate my own learning journey.
Collaboration and connection
Meanwhile back in my old school the principal was leading inspirational remote learning using Google Classroom as well as delivering CPD through Billesley Research School. The school already used Google as the main collaborative tool for planning, leadership and classroom practice, which meant that staff were able to transfer quickly to remote education. There were weekly online CPD sessions where teachers worked in triads to ‘walk’ in each other’s classrooms and share their plans and teaching methods. A key element of learning we found was the use of scaffolds and feedback, and this led then to a series of TeachMeet sessions for children with SEND and their parents to talk and to model some of the strategies we use in school. The staff talked with excitement about the fun in these sessions and how wonderful it was to connect with parents in this way. This experience is also leading a change in how we work with families. Schools are now asking how do we hang on to those special relationships which we have now built with our parents, even those who are hard to reach but who will speak to us online.
In terms of my own role at the Elliot Foundation, I began to engage with our team of Innovations Leads who are trained Google Leaders who introduced me to regular short subject-based webinars. I can now use Google Earth to make geographical explorations, Near Pod for philosophy debates and Flip Grid for history books. Between us, we began to spread the word through our MAT that any teacher could come along and join in. There is a freedom in online discovery. If you make a mistake it doesn’t matter—just play. Watch something for ten minutes—if it’s not for you just stop. But if it is, you can look here, and then here and over here as well. This sense of freedom and community is here to stay. It is a huge positive for teachers as the systems of exploration and communication are open. There is a democracy in leading your own learning, a disruption in school hierarchies. The teacher who can make a bitmoji reading classroom is in demand and it’s fun. The RQT who created Google Sites for parents so that they can access remote learning is now leading key curriculum developments in their school.
The place of the arts
Throughout all of this, the arts and culture sector have been here for us helping to provide a broad and exciting curriculum. Birmingham Rep Theatre, Arts Connect and many other local artists and organisations continued to work with us throughout the period of lockdown, and their generosity and compassion enabled us to keep the joy in teaching. The arts have helped us maintain a human connection at a time when many of us are in real danger of loneliness and isolation. The real joy is that because we maintained that connection during the lockdown period—and we will continue to do so—we have learned so much that will support us as we move forward. We can build communities online as well as in real life. We can create art, music, poetry and dance online and in real life. Digital has enabled us to keep learning, connect with our partners, network with colleagues and explore new practice. It’s for this reason that I’m delighted that the new Teacher Development Fund round has a focus on exploring blended practices in arts-based continuing professional development and learning (CPDL). We already know the value of arts approaches in the primary classroom and we’ve seen the value of online learning during lockdown. This fund combines the two, giving colleagues an opportunity to understand how the best of online practice might work alongside face to face activities in arts-based CPDL. It’s a unique opportunity and one that should be grasped with both hands.