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Distance learning, close communities – why schools’ remote teaching should stress a sense of belonging

May 15, 2020, 9:17 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Maintaining a strong sense of classroom community while operating at a distance isn’t easy, but doing so is vital for pupils’ outcomes and wellbeing, says Sarah Horrocks...
Distance learning, close communities – why schools’ remote teaching should stress a sense of belonging

It’s safe to say that the last six weeks have been a learning curve for children, parents and teachers.

The sudden shift to remote learning, with no certainty as to when or how schools will re-open, has led to a period of rapid adjustment. Teachers have had to find creative ways of adapting their teaching. Students have had to adjust to a very different learning environment.

At the London Connected Learning Centre, part of Education Development Trust, our work centres around embedding technology into all areas of the curriculum, and ensuring that young people possess the digital skills they’ll need for later life. There have undoubtedly been challenges faced and lessons learnt over the past few weeks. However, as many schools being to settle into a more sustainable and long-term pattern of home learning, the importance of cultivating a sense of community at a distance has come to the fore.

Alongside a drive to ensure that children can access resources, we’re now also seeing a growing recognition of how important it is that pupils are able to speak to and work with their peers, as well as being able to see their teachers. We’re keen to share some of the inspiring ways in which schools are using technology to tackle the challenges of remote learning, and foster a sense of belonging at a distance.

Structural issues

In these unprecedented times, we’re all learning as we go. When it was first announced that schools would be closed for an unspecified duration, we immediately saw calls to replicate the structure of a typical school day at home.

However, this isn’t always the most practical or effective way to support learning. For many pupils and their families, it’s an unsustainable approach that only serves to pile on additional stress. Instead, we’re increasingly seeing schools adopt far more flexible approaches to structuring their students’ days, supporting them to learn in a way that fits in with their family’s particular situation.

The CLC works closely with Rosendale Research School in South London, and we’ve been impressed by how the pupils and teachers there have risen to this immense challenge by deploying a range of digital tools and platforms. One of the most striking aspects of Rosendale’s approach has been their ability to cultivate a real sense of community, even when pupils and teachers are physically distant from one another.

Kate Atkins, head of Rosendale Primary School, recently discussed with me her approach to remote learning, and spoke of observing several key principles. First, and most important, is the need to promote positive mental health and wellbeing, while also recognising the value of keeping children entertained. Alongside that is the importance placed on maintaining a sense of school spirit and community, and efforts at promoting positive family relationships.

Staying connected

One of our teaching and learning consultants, Rowan Roberts, recently assisted the school with carrying out data analytics in Seesaw – one of several online platforms that Rosendale is using as part of their remote learning provision. Rowan found that in the past seven days alone, pupils had made a total of 10,000 posts, 7,000 comments and 8,000 likes!

By exchanging photos of drawings, snapshots of their handwriting practice, voice and video recordings and sharing solutions to maths challenges, the school’s pupils have used the platform to stay connected with their peers. Some children have posted pictures of craft activities they’ve undertaken with their families; others have shared interesting sights seen while out on a walk, or recorded happy birthday messages for their classmates.

Teachers have been able to make use of the platform’s comments function for both feedback purposes and to respond to children’s messages. Thanks to its analytics function, teachers can see exactly how engaged the children have been with their distance learning tasks, and contact and support vulnerable children in different ways. What’s stood out the most has been the strong sense of belonging and ‘teacher presence’ the school has been able to maintain.

Digital inequalities

The reality, however, is that we’re still a long way from this kind of online community being accessible to all children across the country. In any school, digital inequalities will act as a barrier to access for some pupils, and given the lack of time to prepare for this situation, many schools will have been unable provide the staff training and support needed to get started with a platform like Seesaw.

The government’s decision to provide laptops and tablets for some of the country’s most disadvantaged pupils is welcome, but the limitations of the provision mean that this can only go so far in tackling the problem.

The challenge remains for educators to adapt their approach to remote learning, so that children aren’t left behind due to their individual circumstances. Despite pupils’ differing access to technology, we’ve heard inspiring stories of how teachers are successfully addressing this and managing to stay in contact with their students – whether it’s writing weekly letters or making regular phone calls to check in on families.

We’re more reliant on technology than ever before, but when it comes to home learning, technology is both a great enabler and a challenge to be managed. As we settle into the ‘new normal’ for the foreseeable future, we need to remember that for our students, school is about so much more than learning – it’s about feeling a sense of belonging.

4 core principles for effective remote learning

1. Create opportunities for engagement between peers
Whilst we are physically distant, teachers should encourage the use of comment functions on blogging and learning platforms so that children can discuss each other’s work and collaborate on projects. Sharing and circulating various pupil-submitted activities, photos and drawings via these platforms will help to children will feel that they are in contact with their peers.
2. Develop the children’s sense of belonging
We know that primary children need to see their teachers from the school community to feel a sense of belonging and security. Schools can now call upon the use of resources from many different providers, but complementing these with personal and meaningful messages from teachers, TAs, sport coaches and headteachers will do much to reassure pupils that your school community is there for them.
3. Ensure teacher presence
It’s particularly important for younger learners to be able to see and interact with their teachers. Via video platforms such as YouTube, Loom or Vimeo, teachers can provide children with morning messages, present new activities and give feedback on work that children have previously shared.

4. Maintain a dialogue between children, parents and teachers
Keeping in regular contact with families and children is essential if issues with remote learning are to be resolved quickly. We know that schools are using every means of communication at their disposal to maintain dialogue with children and their families, particularly those who are vulnerable. For example, we’ve heard examples of KS1 teachers calling students to hear them read. 

Sarah Horrocks is the director of Education Development Trust’s London Connected Learning Centre; for more information, visit or follow @LdnCLC