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Lessons learnt from school closures:
using blended learning to support Key Stage 4.

Author of this article, James McAleese, is Head of Secondary at GEMS Winchester school in Fujairah, UAE.
He currently teaches Business and ICT.

Key Stage 4 (KS4) is a critical time in a student’s education as they begin to explore their subject passions, work on their IGCSE qualifications and start to consider possible further education choices. As Covid-19 compelled schools in the UAE and across the world to temporarily close their doors and shift towards remote learning, this year will stand out as a particularly challenging one for Year 10s and Year 11s.

By now most schools will have settled into a distance learning routine, but what lessons can we take from this experience, and how may we continue to utilise edtech and new teaching practices once schools reopen?

“As schools look ahead and prepare students for the new academic year, there is much to be learnt from the home learning experience. Blended learning can make for a more efficient and personalised learning experience, which is valuable for all pupils but especially Year 10s and Year 11s during their exam preparations and preparations for KS5. “

The approach to blended learning.

Ensuring that students continue to receive a high-quality education at home, and maintain their motivation despite the IGCSE exam cancellations, was the priority at GEMS Winchester School during this period. We understood that students and parents might be feeling isolated and anxious about learning from home and the impact on their IGCSE results, and so providing ongoing support and reassurance for KS4 would be particularly important. Furthermore, equipping students to make the transition into the next stage of their education is also a key consideration as the academic year draws to a close.

With this in mind, we sought to create a blended learning strategy which would integrate digital resources and conventional teaching methods, for an engaging and interactive student experience. The outcomes from students over the past months have illustrated the benefits of integrating online resources, from improving their ability to learn independently and self-review, to allowing for more personalised instruction which reflects the needs of individual learners. 

As schools across the globe prepare to reopen, evolving our teaching practices to include more flexibility and mixed-media content might be the most valuable takeaway from this experience.

Audio-visual learning.

As we made the transition to home learning, it was clear that we would need to deliver engaging and interactive lessons despite not being face-to-face with our students. Like other schools we have been utilising edtech to make home learning as easy and engaging as possible for students during this period. However, distance learning is not about simply telling students to watch a video or read a handout. We understood that students could become disinterested if the lessons were always the same and if they lacked interaction with their teachers, especially now during Ramadan when lessons are reduced to 25 minutes. Because lessons are so much shorter than normal, every second counts, so we had to think creatively in order to  keep them engaged and actively learning and replicate the normal classroom lesson using a combination of virtual independent learning and teacher-led direction.

One particularly successful tactic was to use flipped learning. Prior to the school closures, we were encouraging teachers to use more education technology, including GCSEPod, which I had used very successfully at my previous school. GCSEPod has a bank of 3-5 minute ‘Pod’ videos written specifically for 27 IGCSE and GCSE subjects, plus a range of tools that enable teachers to create video playlists to share and set work for students. Teachers create a playlist of Pods relevant to the topic they were studying and ask students to watch them before the Microsoft Teams lesson. During this live teaching time, we’ll work through the linked assignments or various other learning activities available within GCSEPod with the students, giving them the opportunity to discuss them with their teachers and classmates. This means that the shorter lesson on Teams can be used much more effectively: pupils enjoy chatting and sharing their ideas, just as they would have done in the normal classroom, and they say that they feel more motivated understanding exactly how the videos fit into the curriculum content, having discussed it in the live session.  

Turning home learning into an advantage.

Distance learning presents certain challenges, however it also provides a unique opportunity for students to review and consolidate their learning and get a head-start on their studies for next year. We now have a generation of digital-native students learning from home. We also have the edtech tools at our disposal to take the classroom experience online and deliver the same high standard of teacher support and curriculum-aligned content which students would expect in the classroom.

Blended learning is more attuned to the way today’s young students consume and engage with content. Audio-visual revision has the entertainment appeal but also the flexibility, enabling students to pause, watch and re-watch as needed to reinforce their topic understanding. Combining this independent work with teacher-led sessions then creates a more engaging and dynamic student experience. Furthermore, blended learning enables pupils to take ownership of their study and develop key independent thinking skills which are beneficial for their education careers and beyond.

While digital learning is not a replacement for traditional classroom teaching, it is an invaluable tool which can enhance the learning experience for students when integrated properly within the curriculum.

Helping Year 10s and Year 11s stay on top of their learning.

Blended learning is an opportunity to enrich the personalised learning experience for Year 10s and Year 11s. Each pupil is different and will learn best in different ways and at different speeds. Using an online learning tool which provides instant feedback on students’ work is valuable as it allows teachers to identify any knowledge gaps in real-time and ensure this is addressed in the next lesson. Like other international schools in the UAE, we have a high proportion of learners with English as an additional language (EAL). Students therefore enjoy using audio-visual resources with subtitles, which allow them to slow down or re-watch sections as needed. Once schools reopen, digital resources can continue to offer a customised learning experience for KS4 at a time when they need it most.

One of the key questions for GEMS Winchester was how we would roll out the end of year examinations for KS4 students and help them progress into the next key stage. Using the audio-visual resource, we have the ability to create bespoke virtual test papers that track and evaluate each student’s learning, just as we would have done with written papers. As we move into May which is traditionally the exam revision phase for students, we can help Year 11s bridge the gap up to Key Stage 5 (KS5), with tailored online lesson plans and using the GCSEPod ‘Getting Ready for A-level’ resources which have been very well received by our students.

Align your edtech with the KS4 curriculum .

Remote learning has given schools everywhere the opportunity to explore new edtech resources and see how they might benefit the curriculum going forward. To maximise the benefits of edtech, teachers must receive thorough training so that they understand how the resource covers the curriculum. This enables teachers to map out effective lesson plans, set homework and modify tasks for students depending on their abilities. Curriculum-aligned tasks are especially important for KS4 to make sure they are not missing out any IGCSE topics.  

For example, many of our year 11 students were anxious about making sure they had covered all of their exam content. I knew that the Pods in GCSEPod cover all 21 units of the ICT IGCSE, so I was able to create comprehensive playlists of videos and then set multiple-choice assignments for each ICT unit, with a deadline to complete them by the end of May.

The playlists gave them a clear, structured lesson plan to work through at their own pace, but with a clear target in mind, and the assignments meant that I could monitor their knowledge and pinpoint pupils who may need more advanced tasks or additional support on a specific topic. Even if the IGCSE exams are not taking place, this means that students can confidently say they have covered the entire ICT syllabus and are prepared to start the next stage of their learning pathway.

As schools look ahead and prepare students for the new academic year, there is much to be learnt from the home learning experience. Blended learning can make for a more efficient and personalised learning experience, which is valuable for all pupils but especially Year 10s and Year 11s during their exam preparations and preparations for KS5. Interactive, curriculum-based online learning which reflects the way students want to learn can help KS4 stay motivated with their learning, both at home and in the classroom.

 Interactive, curriculum-based online learning which reflects the way students want to learn can help KS4 stay motivated with their learning, both at home and in the classroom.

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Ian Lee, Yew Chung International School of Shanghai, China

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