Teaching Mathematics Remotely
Remote teaching was difficult to get the hang of. Predictably, many students were more technologically savvy than staff; the teacher would find themselves muted, their PowerPoint slides racing ahead out of their control, on some occasions even booted out of their own lessons. Sometimes it proved difficult to find your class at all as meeting after meeting opened with different combinations of students and teachers in each.
Good mathematics teaching requires more than slides. Indeed, many of the best lessons involve just a pen and whiteboard, mathematics appearing through discussion. This was difficult virtually with many students lacking the confidence to switch on their microphone. The chat function proved useful for numerical answers but trickier for anything complex. Graphics tablets and visualisers brought their own pitfalls – students accessing the lesson via a slower connection would see handwriting blur or be out of sync. The button on the side of the ‘pen’ was frequently cursed: one accidental tap and all that had just been written would suddenly be deleted.
We got better, with students uploading photographs of their work. It was nevertheless a far cry from the classroom where a good teacher can see which students are struggling from their body language. The inattentive student can be identified and brought back into the fold through a well-timed question. Not so online where an attempt at a targeted question would often yield no answer. A teacher might try, ‘James, this question is for you …’, only to encounter a silent void: perhaps because James did not know the answer; because he was following the lesson on a mobile phone and could not type a reply; or maybe because he was playing a video game in another tab, possibly with the rest of the class.
The ‘new normal’
The return to the classroom was greeted with mixed feelings. I was delighted that students were no longer reliant on technology, especially in the community I serve where many shared devices, and that disengaged pupils were again under our watchful eyes. On the other hand, it was disconcerting to speak to friends from other professions who were still working from home. Their worries about going shopping, for example, because of crowds, were ones I shared, however standing in front of a class of 30 students, all unvaccinated, in a classroom with windows which only open two inches and where social distancing was intrinsically impossible, it seemed inevitable that we would catch Covid.
The restrictions still in place made it difficult to teach normally. Teachers were advised to no longer walk around, but to maintain social distance. Exercise books required 72 hours of quarantine before marking. In mathematics, instant feedback is vital: a student often needs guidance to find a mistake in their reasoning. The barriers which prevented many from asking for help – often a lack of confidence or motivation – could not be broken down so easily.
As life began its ‘new normal’, and staff absence returned to pre-pandemic levels, unfortunate situations where one teacher would try to teach 90 students at the same time were happily relegated to the past. Most students were pleased to be back, but for many their confidence and self-esteem around mathematics had been shaken. For Year 11, the idea of GCSE examinations in subjects they had not studied properly since Year 8, was terrifying.
Many struggled to engage, perhaps because they were frightened of what they might find if they did. Mathematics had suffered especially in lockdown – could this be in part due to lack of confidence from parents? It saddens me when I am asked what I do for a living that it is common and socially acceptable to subsequently hear, ‘Oooh, I struggled with maths at school …’. This is something which I firmly believe that all teachers, and mathematics professionals, need to work to improve.
Legacy of remote learning
Post-pandemic, I am more appreciative of the personal interaction I have with students. That quiet one to one conversation with a student about their work cannot be overrated. I need to see the expressions on the students’ faces so I know when to ask a question differently.
In the end, remote learning has improved our practice – teaching time is not confined to the classroom from 9 until 4. We now deliver online revision in the evening when some students prefer to learn. Students have become confident to email us: whilst this can feel like both a blessing and a curse late on a Saturday evening, it is good to see them reach out directly.
On a personal note I would like to thank all the students in my classes for bearing with me as I struggled with laptops, visualisers and microphones, especially the one who would type in the chat, five minutes after the start of the lesson, ‘Miss, are you teaching? We can’t hear you …’.
By Emma Davies
Maths Scholarships Alumni
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