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How remote school reviews can still deliver value and impact in times of remote learning

In conversation with Jo Cheadle: How remote school reviews can still deliver value and impact in times of remote learning.

We speak with Jo Cheadle, Vice President of Class Measures, as she shares her views and experiences of remote school reviewing. Jo reveals the new skills reviewers need to adopt, the benefits that schools can realise, how to avoid the pitfalls, how to assess the quality of learning taking place via remote review, and the importance of maintaining authenticity in order to conduct reviews that deliver impact.

In these times, what aspects of school review should leaders expect to compromise on?
Probably the biggest compromise is on an authentic observation of a classroom setting because obviously remote learning does not give us the 360 view of the classroom that we would normally have. Having said that, it does give us the ability to look closely at student’s expression and body language in response to a teacher's delivery. So, in one way, that is a benefit because we do not have that close proximity during a classroom observation. I would say that generally, that is the only compromise that we are having to make for remote review.

[ Listen to the interview with Jo ]

Having overseen and conducted remote reviews in 2020 and 2021, what new skills has your team had to develop?
The range of technology we are using now is far in advance of the range of technology we used previously for any work to do with schools. We are understanding that districts have selected various platforms that they're starting with as their basis for their district to remote work. But also, several teachers have introduced various technology tools and are using technology in a different way to enable students to access learning in a variety of ways to meet their needs.

In addition, I think that we have got much better time management because initially, we scheduled ourselves to the hilt with back-to-back observations and discussions, forgetting that in a normal setting we would have the luxury of transition, physical transition from one space to another space that gave us time for thought and reflection. And initially, we began to back-to-back timetable ourselves, schedule ourselves so that we did not have that break.

We quickly learned that that was not a very good strategy and that our brains need time to absorb, assimilate and reflect on what we have observed to lead us to the evidence trail. So, scheduling now looks very different as we have got better at it.

How has the role of the lead reviewer had to change with the prevalence of remote reviews?
I think the only way that the leader of reviewer's role has changed is being in their quick response to technology faux pas, and to actually overcome that, we have devised a much better system of having people who are not directly involved in the review there and available to deal with technology issues as they may arise, so that the lead review isn't dragged away from the essential review work. What that may look like is that a reviewer goes to a classroom, they cannot get access for one reason or another, a system of text messages goes round. We do not expect the lead reviewers to resolve those issues, but somebody that's been put on a monitoring and QA role, who's not directly involved in the review, will sort that with the lead name from the Review Institute. I think that that is how we have overcome the potential change in what the lead reviewer has to do during the review. Other than that, their role is exactly the same.

Are there any advantages to the review process being remote?
We found the benefits are numerous. One of them being that we can get to see more if we schedule very well, because transition time takes time. Sometimes schools or groups of schools are not in close proximity to each other which means a team must spread themselves very thinly to be able to get to see all that's needed. Obviously, we do not have that issue with a remote review. The other part of the process that I think is enhanced by remote review work is that the class measures process really relies heavily on joint observation, meaning that people from the organisation that we are looking at, we absolutely encourage them to participate in observation and discussions and interviews that are going on because we believe that our evidence is better if it is gathered from a shared viewpoint. It allows us to talk more authentically about what we have seen, it allows mindsets to understand how the triangulation of evidence is happening, and it makes outcomes far easier to accept and understand. And because the remote setting also means that people are available in succession, more people from organisations can join us to observe and discuss, so that is actually a real benefit.

How important is authenticity in the review process?
When we start to review, when we receive a self-assessment from an organisation, its words on a page, when we see it, we understand the application or the implementation much better. When we see it with somebody else and discuss it and understand why it is happening like that, the hurdles that may have been overcome to get to the position we're at now and the work that's gone into planning and implementing, even if it's not at its most successful point, but the work that is being done that is actually showing a change for the positive. When we can discuss that and see it with somebody else with all its warts, because sometimes we see things that even the observer from the organisation is a little shocked by, it allows us to talk about the provision and understand what the hurdles and challenges might be. And even in some cases, to understand that success is far more along the line than they thought, so we can celebrate more authentically as well as understand complexities more authentically.

Does remote/hybrid delivery make it more important for reviews to look at the quality of learning taking place, rather than the quality of instruction?
I think the biggest takeaway from our experience over the last few months has been that, by and large, schools do not focus as heavily as they absolutely need to on what learning looks like, but more on what teaching looks like. In the remote setting, that's exacerbated a thousand-fold because you cannot see the context in which a student is working.

You cannot understand their emotions about the learning environment. And so, it's really important for teachers to use an even greater range of strategies to ensure engagement and contribution, participation, expression, articulation, communication, in a remote setting.

We have been heavily looking at the way that schools and districts are developing that skill and knowledge amongst their teachers to make the maximum use of all of their essential teaching skills but also to make technology work for them so they can actually understand what the learning is really looking like for the student.

How are you able to assess the quality of learning taking place in the absence of physical reviews?
The first and most essential point is we are assessing the quality of learning in relation to the adaptation of the planning that has gone in for the lesson. We have found that learning is not as good as it should have been when teachers are attempting to cover too many targets towards too broader learning objective. The remote situation calls for us all to refine and slim down completely what we expect students to be able to achieve in a given remote session or hybrid session. Learning is best when students have one or two targets that they are expected to achieve through a session that led to the achievement of part of an objective, an overall learning objective, for a group of sessions.

The best learning happens when students know what will happen during a week. So, at the start of a week, they are introduced to the pattern of what we are going to learn for the whole week. By the end of the week, this is where the majority of you will be at. The best learning throughout those sessions mean that we see teachers providing a range of different strategies for students of different levels of ability to accomplish those short step targets in the interim, so that by the end of a whole group of sessions, most students have reached the learning objectives.

And what that may look like, depending on districts, regulations around remote learning policies, is that they use small groups in breakout rooms, they use artefacts in chat sessions so that a group of students may have a resource that they turn to that helps them to understand the target. While another group has a resource that pushes them past the target. It may be that they use additional adult help in small group sessions within a whole class session, remote session, a variety of different differentiation strategies to enable learning to take place.

Of course, there are all the usual ways that we look at, students’ facial expressions, the number of students who are willing to offer written contributions in a chat session, or the number of students who are willing to raise their hand and offer an oral contribution. The number of students who can ask an additional question to take the learning onto the next level, the number of students who choose to turn their video cameras off a third of the way through because they are feeling anxious about the whole thing, and then the strategies that the teacher uses to bring them back again. So, there are a multitude of ways to actually assess learning and we're learning more as we're going through about those strategies and how effective they are in the remote and hybrid context.

How do you know that the reviews have been conducted to a high, robust standard?
As I alluded to previously, we have rejigged the way that we do things internally around the quality assurance process. At all times we have at least two people who are not directly involved in the review but are actually accessing and observing the observers as they're doing their work.

We had a summer session a year ago, where we understood that that was vital to ensure quality. And now on every review process since that time, we have had me sometimes and another one of the class measures consultant leaders who are always available to pop into classroom observations, to do calibration, pop in to review discussions, to make sure that questions are being asked in the way that leads to good evidence. Of course, we have the ability to look at the collated evidence to ensure that outcomes are triangulated thoroughly and rigorously to ensure that judgments at the end of a review are very well aligned with the evidence gathered.

How do you ensure you get a holistic sense of the school, despite conducting the review via technology platforms?
I think that we have been able to achieve that because we have been really focused on continuing to do all aspects of the review activities. I know that in some reviews that have been happening through other organisations, the piece about remote learning and hybrid learning has been left off, so not as many classroom observations have been taken into account. I think that that is a mistake because that is the experience that students are actually going through right now therefore that's what we should be reviewing.

But it is also essential to understand that none of the other activities that we would normally do on a review can be neglected. It is important to speak to, for example, students in the student focus group and it is easily arranged. It is important to speak to teachers who are new to a school or new to a district and understand their experiences just like we would on a normal review. And essentially, it is normal to do the pre review communication very thoroughly with school leaders and keep that debriefing time going throughout the review, as we would normally do on a review process. The class measures scheduling always includes an early morning meeting with school leaders or district leaders to go through where we've got to the day before. Then at an end of day debriefing to see where the day has taken us and where we might need to adjust scheduling for the next day. I think that through all those processes, we have been able to keep quality and rigor at all times.

Why should schools and districts be considering review at this moment in time?
It may seem that given the context that we are all working in right now, that the last thing we would want to embark on is a review of how it's going. But that’s absolutely the reason why we should be doing it. The whole COVID context has changed the way that we do things and need to do things for the future. Without a clear understanding of how we've managed this whole process, what skills and knowledge have been thrown up as essential for our teachers out of this whole process, and various ways that we can support our teachers to better support and understand student’s needs - if we don't learn that through this whole challenging time, we are never going to be ready to go back to any form of what normality might look like when things change again.

We do not anticipate the old normal ever looking like it did because of what has happened over the last year and will continue to happen for at least the next six months. Therefore, gaining a complete understanding of what we need to do to ensure that learning is good enough for every child coming back into our schools in whatever context is extremely important. And understanding it now is vital for everybody.

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