CEO's blog: Keeping learning to the fore in digital strategy

25 November 2020

Kate Chhatwal shares the key components of an effective digital learning strategy, which she spoke about at an EPI/Apple panel event this week, Moving Forward: digital learning lessons for leadership

I’ll preface my remarks by saying I will have a much better answer to this question once our peer review programme gets underway after Christmas. We have added a section to our Challenge Partners review framework that means remote learning will be explored in every review, allowing us to identify and share quickly the brilliant blended learning practice I’m sure we will find.

However, we have been talking and thinking about blended approaches to learning within Challenge Partners since before lockdown, so I have had the opportunity to visit some schools who were ahead of the game in developing blended approaches to learning and I’ve spoken to many more since.

What I would say based on that, is that for me, an effective digital learning strategy has two key components, both of which relate to the fact that the best digital learning strategies aren’t digital learning strategies at all. They are just learning strategies which start with the curriculum and intended learning outcomes, and not with the means or medium of teaching.

First, having got this learning strategy in place, leaders might then consider whether learning would be enhanced through a digital or blended learning approach, but they shouldn’t start with that.

An analogy here is what happened with some of those funky architectural masterpieces built under BSF. Suddenly teachers found themselves with all sorts of mezzanines and break-out spaces, and too many without walls. Some I visited seemed to be expending a lot of effort thinking about how to make best use of those spaces, and it became a distraction from thinking about what children needed to learn and how best to teach them. We need to avoid the digital architecture of 2020 becoming the distraction physical architecture was in the noughties. We need to keep the main thing, the main thing (as Stephen Covey would have it).

Of course we are not in “normal” times and we don’t always have a choice about whether we teach digitally, if for example, a class is isolating. We do though have choice about what we try to teach digitally and what technology we make use of. This will take a certain amount of agility to either find an effective digital means of delivering the planned curriculum or to flex the curriculum - oh so carefully sequenced - to deliver things that do work digitally when you have to and delay teaching things that work better in class until the students are in class.

Others on the panel will have better insight than me into some of the specific tech and platforms schools can draw on and how effective they are, but knowing how resourceful teachers are, it comes as no surprise to me to have heard on my virtual travels how well teachers have been able to incorporate all we know about effective pedagogy - including interleaving, quizzing and a whole range of metacognitive strategies - into their digital learning.

The SECOND thing about this being first and foremost a learning strategy, is that it should incorporate all the other things schools would normally do to ensure quality first teaching - things like:

  1. CPD - so that teachers understand what technology can do and feel confident using it

  2. Clear expectations and quality assurance - so teachers know what the expectations are and leaders can ensure those expectations are being met - with support put in place for those finding it difficult

  3. And those expectations should be sky high - now, more than ever, our children deserve nothing less. One of the exciting things about technology in teaching for me is that it could allow us to raise the bar on what we expect of learners. I saw one small example of this when I visited a primary school before lockdown, where children were using ipads to write a setting description. They had a whole internet of pictures to stimulate them and whole thesaurus of words to describe them with, so the teacher’s expectations were - rightly - sky high about how the children would describe the muffled chill of Antarctica, not that it was cold. This revealed the potential that exists in the use of technology - if everyone has access to it - not to dumb down, but to level up our expectations of what pupils can learn and do

  4. The strategy should also consider the needs of all learners, identifying and addressing gaps for individuals and groups. There may be ways technology can help and I have been heartened by anecdotal evidence of this, for example invisible boys or children with some forms of SEND flourishing through remote learning when they didn’t in classrooms. This is a potential I am very keen that we explore more.