The importance of social interaction for the wellbeing of the teenage brain has been well documented, notably by Dr Bettina Hohnen, in "The Incredible Teenage Brain", and others.

So, at the end of the Spring term 2020, when it became clear that we needed to take some swift decisions about our approach to lessons at Felsted during the national lockdown, the senior leadership team agreed that personal contact with students would be vital for teachers to maintain throughout the period of remote learning. 

Planning our guide to online lessons for teaching staff, we emphasised that the fundamental principles of our teaching and learning would need to be inherent in a virtual lesson, just as they would be in a physical classroom situation. But we also made sure not to overlook a vital ingredient in this - the role of the teacher in responding to the students as individuals and addressing their particular needs. 

It was crucial to us that Felsted’s online lessons did not sacrifice the opportunity for teachers to give frequent and effective feedback to students - to recognise their progress and their effort and to maintain their motivation. 

"Teachers were able to use this time to give much needed attention to students."

So, rather than simply streaming lessons live from the classroom to students to watch in real-time at home, we took the decision to provide asynchronous – non-live, recorded – lessons as part of an online learning platform.

With lesson time therefore freed up, teachers were able to use this time to give much needed attention to students. Each day, and sometimes twice a day, every student participated in a Google Classroom meeting with a small tutor group, allowing them the opportunity for social interaction with their peers as well as discussion with the tutor. Less confident or independent students particularly benefited from additional teacher time.

The non-live nature of the lessons had great benefits for students’ learning, particularly the facility to replay the lesson, or portions of the lesson, as many times as they needed to reinforce their understanding. Explaining and modelling are of course crucial to any effective lesson, and teachers welcomed the opportunity to develop their resources and explanations away from lesson time, and to refine each lesson before it was made available to students.

"Surveys of parents and students show they have found our arrangements to be effective."

As we head towards the end of the autumn term, we have concluded that students’ engagement has been sustained, and that good progress continued to be made throughout the first lockdown period. Our asynchronous approach has been monitored constantly by heads of department and the school’s senior leaders, who have watched and joined in with a wide range of lessons and Google Classrooms and, bringing the clarity necessary to ask the right questions, have assessed them throughout. Surveys of parents as well as students have shown that they too have found our arrangements to be an effective and practical solution to teaching and learning under the imposed restrictions.

Confident of its success, we have continued the evolve our approach of the summer term through into the autumn term, and this has enabled us to move efficiently through the induction of students joining the school in September, and to manage the variable numbers of pupils working remotely while waiting for Covid tests and results. Having managed staff concerns about the potential problems of blended learning, we now see that many are now boldly finding new ways to create hybrid lessons combining the best elements of both the synchronous and asynchronous approach, to suit the needs of their subject and the students involved.

"The impact of the increase in typing on memory and understanding remains to be seen."

A lesson from lockdown - one that we at Felsted anticipate will be lasting - concerns change management in a context of heightened emotions and practical constraints. Clarity and visibility, and bringing to the fore fundamental guiding principles  have been essential in enabling us to meet the challenges of the pandemic, the vagaries of government indecision and the expectations of our families. 

As we begin to understand more about the impact of digital learning on cognition, and the pedagogy of digital teaching and learning, there will be a need for certain aspects to evolve. It remains to be seen, for example, what impact the increase in typing rather than handwriting will have on memory and understanding, and on hand-written exam performance. 

What we have realised in forming our response to an unprecedented challenge in education is that huge and positive changes to teaching and learning in schools is manageable. However, all stakeholders must participate in dialogue, and management decisions must be firmly rooted in evidence-informed principles. 

The key is to frame the discussion so that it is constructive and productive and leads to decision-making that upholds the values of teaching and learning, even in the face of global uncertainty.