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Even Better Than In-Person

Harry Williams, Maths Teacher
Harry Williams, Maths Teacher

When I joined Harrow School Online in August last year, I knew that I had massive opportunity to experiment and innovate, to question the habits of my established teaching practice and hopefully to leave a lasting impact on my students, changing their lives for the better and helping to inspire a lifetime of learning. As I thought about my first LiveLesson®, I wondered: what if I could leverage the power of online learning to do things that just can’t be done in a standard bricks and mortar school? 

One big challenge of teaching in a physical classroom comes in the ‘book work’ phase of the lesson: it is very challenging to get immediate feedback as to how all the students are progressing with their work. If you can negotiate the furniture around the room to look in a few books, it is always a gamble as to whether you should disrupt the focus of the class to address any misconceptions there and then, or make a note to try to address these after the phase of quiet bookwork, but of course this runs the risk of allowing students to “practice doing it wrong” which might make it more likely that they make the same mistake again - perhaps when it really counts in their exams. Great maths teachers try to skirt around these issues by making use of tools like mini-whiteboards, expert questioning with diagnostic and hinge questions, but when students are working on practice exercises in their exercise books, it is very difficult for even the most experienced teacher to get a detailed and immediate sense of how students are progressing.

In my virtual Maths classroom, thanks to our students’ use of graphics tablets in conjunction with the online collaborative whiteboarding tool, Miro, however, I genuinely think we are glimpsing into the future of what I suspect every classroom might look like one day. With the power of this technology, I can see in real-time exactly what each of our students are writing, flicking between students’ work in seconds: it is an absolute game-changer for mathematical instruction! Gone are the days of anxiously wondering what students are writing: it is happening right in front of my eyes! It is so easy to spotlight student success, to praise them, to encourage and to reassure them that they’re on the right track - or to intervene at just the right moment to address misconceptions or to help students to identify, analyse and reflect upon any mistakes made. 

I can help scaffold problems for students: in just a few clicks, I can gain the attention of entire class so we can collaborate, and I can help scaffold any particularly troublesome steps, then in a few seconds, students can pick up exactly where we left off as a group and see if they can use my hints to completely solve the problem. I can see exactly how quickly students are writing, which makes it incredibly easy to intervene if a student is at risk of getting behind. Our online classroom allows for a highly personalised, interactive and engaging learning experience. 

Silent intervention is so much easier in the online classroom, which can allow for a much less distracting learning environment; sometimes just highlighting a little slip is sufficient, or if discussion is required, it’s so easy to open up a breakout room to help a group of students without the need to disturb those who don’t need such support. Students can use the Q&A to privately let me know if they’d like some support, allowing our more introverted students to easily seek support, and to engage in the lesson in a way that feels most comfortable for them.

Nurturing a positive and supportive classroom culture is absolutely crucial to a successful online classroom; getting students to see mistakes not as something to be ashamed of, of something that they should hide, but as something inherently human and a crucial opportunity for learning is one of my key goals for my classes: earning trust from my students is absolutely key - indeed, sometimes I tell my students just how pleased I am to see that they’ve made just the mistake I was hoping for as it gives everyone the chance to reflect on how we might try to avoid similar errors in future. 

It’s incredibly exciting to be part of such an innovative school. The flipped learning model - where students study the core material in their own time outside the classroom, then spend class time practising problems - has had a genuine transformational effect on our students: we give our students genuine agency and academic freedom to explore mathematics at their own pace and on their schedule in their self-study lessons. Of course, this is a huge change in approach to what many of our students have experienced before, but there is plenty of support for them as they develop genuine independence in a manner much more akin to university-level study. Our best students in the Upper Sixth are no doubt some of the most mature, organised, self-motivated and driven students that I have ever had the pleasure of teaching; I have no doubt that they will go on to do incredible things, changing our world for the better. I am genuinely inspired by their stories of what the flexibility of studying with Harrow School Online has allowed them to do: in my tutor group, Tray-Sean is currently working on an investment YouTube channel and podcast; Aditi is winning over hearts and minds publishing beautiful poetry about the issues of climate change and the treatment of women; Muhammed is exploring highly competitive internships with the likes of Goldman Sachs; whilst Eva is exploring her passion for philosophy, getting a taste of university-level study in undertaking a pre-college programme with Columbia University.