by Mark Dawes (February 2021)
I don’t often eat avocados but bought some last week when they were on special offer in the supermarket. I ate one this morning and then one of our cats, always excited about anything new in the house, jumped up and started licking the inside of the avocado skin. Three minutes later he started retching.
My first thought: “Cats don’t like avocados”. But maybe they love the taste, and it’s just too rich for them (in the same way that young children like chocolate but it can make them ill!).
Would it be better as: “Avocados make cats ill”? But perhaps that’s not true of all cats and only our cat is susceptible.
My third try: “My cat and avocados are not a good combination”. But maybe it’s only because it was the first time he had tried it and if he were to get used to it then things would be fine (not that I’m planning on this!).
Fourth go: “An avocado made my cat ill this morning”. That sounds better. But perhaps the timing was a fluke and he had previously eaten something else that didn’t agree with him.
I finally landed on: “My cat ate avocado and was ill a few minutes later. I don’t know if there is a connection.”
While this clearly links with the idea that “correlation is not causation” (demonstrated brilliantly here in one of my favourite xkcd cartoons), this made me think about online teaching and how we tell whether students are engaged in the lesson.
In January, when we started live online lessons, if a student didn’t respond my first thought was “they aren’t engaging with the lesson”. Maybe there are other things going on.What we knowWhat might be going onA student doesn’t unmute to answer questions
They don’t have a microphone
Their headphones/mic are broken
They don’t know how to use the software to unmute, or can’t do it quickly
They have genuine reasons for not wanting to unmute, such as noisy siblings in the background, or family members watching TV, etc
They aren’t engaging with the lessonA student doesn’t type in the chat
They don’t know how to use the software to do this
They are using a phone and can’t see the chat as well as the presentation screen
They are embarrassed about their spelling
They are embarrassed about getting the maths wrong
They aren’t engaging with the lessonA student doesn’t write on an online whiteboard
They don’t have a stylus, so writing is difficult
They are trying to write on a small screen (such as a phone)
They find it difficult because they can only see that whiteboard, and can’t also view the question, other information they might want to refer back to, etc
They aren’t engaging with the lessonA student doesn’t take part in the Kahoot (or equivalent) quiz
The storage on their phone is full, so they cannot download the app
Their wifi works intermittently or slowly
They are embarrassed because their position in the class is shared with other students
It can be a high-pressure activity (as well as being rewarded for being correct, you get more points for being fast: generally that isn’t something we would seek to reward in class)
They aren’t engaging with the lessonA student doesn’t answer the questions on Desmos/forms/another platform
They don’t understand how to get into the platform
Their screen is too small (Desmos warns you if the activity you have made is too fiddly to use on a phone)
They are embarrassed because they haven’t been able to access earlier parts of the lesson
They aren’t engaging with the lessonA student doesn’t watch the video they have been assigned
Their wifi is too slow (perhaps because others in the family are online too)
They don’t understand how to get into the platform
They aren’t engaging with the lesson
Then there are reasons that might affect everything that is mentioned above:
No wifi/poor connection/used up their data
No device to use
Have caring responsibilities at home (looking after grandparent or pre-school sibling)
Something crops up (need to answer the door to accept a delivery)
The student is suffering from anxiety and isn’t engaging with anything at all
What can we do about it?
Ask relevant colleagues about the pupil. Are they engaging in other lessons? Their other teachers will know this, or their tutor or head of year might know what is going on. Is it the time of day (need to make lunch for others in the family), or that they feel unsure only about maths?
Ask parents, or ask the pupil themselves. This could take the form of enquiring whether there are things we can do to help pupils to take part in the lesson more effectively.
Try to set up alternatives that will work for that pupil. For example, if they are embarrassed about typing in the public chat area then try to reassure them, or encourage them to email you during the lesson instead.
Send resources earlier so they can download them the night before to be ready (rather than risking a wifi outage at the time).
Pass on issues with a lack of appropriate devices, wifi, etc to the head of year or senior leader responsible.
It is difficult (and sometimes frustrating) to be teaching a class where some pupils don’t respond. But, like my cat and the avocado, there are multiple possible reasons for this.