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Principles of home-based learning for teachers

Principle 1: Design tasks with purpose

Every learning task, or activity, should be designed for a reason or to achieve a specific goal, and must be engaging for children. Engaging activities are purposeful, authentic, novel, and moderately complex. They draw on students’ interests while providing opportunities to learn new material. Learning tasks should last on average 20-30 minutes for primary and intermediate school children and 30 – 45 minutes for those of secondary school age. Tasks that are too long can lead to disengagement, distraction and reduced productivity. Also be aware that when learning remotely, students typically will get through less work than they would in a classroom.

For ECE teachers, designing learning activities that can be delivered digitally is particularly challenging as much of the learning occurs through play and personal interaction with children. However, there are opportunities to develop digital content suitable for home learning with 0 – 5 year olds using collaborative software programmes or learning platforms like Storypark and Educa. These tools allow ECE teachers to generate videos and post stories, pictures and comments related to student learning and achievement. They can also post links to external sites or content.

At the primary school level, there are a number of tools and resources that primary school teachers can use to create digital content and share it with students (such as Google Classroom, Moodle, Blackboard, Easy Class and ClassDojo). There are also a number of programmes and apps that teachers can use to supplement lessons including Mathletics, Epic! and ABCMouse.

Secondary school teachers can utilise many of the same platforms as their primary counterparts, although they will need access to software programmes designed for children aged 13+. Some useful resources for teachers include Education Perfect and CK12.

Principle 2: Be clear and consistent

It is important to be clear and consistent in the design, delivery and assessment of all home learning tasks. Inconsistent instructions or expectations can make students less engaged, limit their learning, and lead to feelings of frustration and confusion. In practice, this involves establishing clear systems for communicating with students, assigning tasks, responding to queries, providing feedback, and posting grades. There is no one system for this, but it is important that teachers choose an approach and stick with it. It is particularly important that timelines and expectations for tasks and due dates are clearly communicated. As teachers you may find it helpful to use a digital tool to create classroom timetables, schedules or calendars that you can populate with key information (such as assignment due dates). Tools such as Google Calendar, Timetable, Class Timetable, and TimeTabler are all effective.

Principle 3: Play to your strengths

When designing home learning tasks, select topics that are inherently interesting and familiar. This will make the entire process of designing, delivering and evaluating student work easier and more fun! It may also provide learners with insights into who you are as a person. This can be particularly important when students are learning from a distance and may feel disconnected from the content and experience of learning in a classroom, and from you as their teacher. This is a great way to ‘bridge the distance’ and help you remain connected to your students.

Where possible, create lessons and communications for students that give them insight into who you are – your experiences or your interests. While it is, of course, very important to maintain an appropriate professional distance, it is possible to choose a topic that is personally interesting and relevant to you and to share personal stories, anecdotes, pictures, or short videos with your students. Vimeo is a user-friendly app for creating high quality videos. Ensure that you protect your privacy and that of your family and friends when posting all content. You need verbal or written permission from everyone who appears in any public posts.

You can also invite your students to ‘play to their strengths’ and engage in learning activities based on their own passions by creating digital challenges for students that draw on these passions. Encourage children to record their activity and post it on a shared forum, like a class website.

Principle 4: Prioritise social connection

This is arguably one of the most important home-based learning principles. Students may be experiencing feelings of isolation, loneliness and anxiety as they grapple with living and learning in social isolation. Many students will be missing the social relationships, contacts and interactions of school. Therefore, it is particularly important that all home-based learning include opportunities for students to engage actively in meaningful social exchanges with others. This can include students talking about their work with someone at home, sharing it via a digital medium or by phone, or recording it and sharing it on a safe, social platform.

It is also critical that students have the opportunity to share their learning with their teachers and their peers. It not only maintains the personal relationship that you have but also provides you with opportunities to monitor student learning and achievement. In addition to communicating with each of your students by email, primary and secondary school teachers can create social connection in many different ways. Firstly, you can establish a single digital ‘space’ where all of your students can share their work and connect with their classmates. Often teachers create a class website or use Google Classroom for this purpose. Google Classroom has a built-in messaging system that students can use to post questions that are visible to the entire classroom. Another option is to create a classroom Zoom site so that students can see one another through the video cameras in their devices, which can be a very powerful way of maintaining a social connection from a distance. Younger students may require assistance from parents to log into Zoom. Ensure you employ appropriate security protocols such as passwords to join meetings.

Another option worth considering the idea of class blogs. In some schools, all children are issued an individual blog on which they can post evidence of their learning. The blogs are a great way to showcase what they have done and to receive feedback from teachers, peers and their families. Alternatively, you as the teacher could create your own blog where you post information to share with your students. It is important that all students completing blogs also receive lessons in cybersafety.

ECE teachers can use both Storypark and Educa to enable social connection. Teachers are able to post stories, notifications, comments, pictures and videos on the site. This content can be viewed by specific families only or by the entire community. During periods of social isolation, it can be particularly important for teachers to post content regularly. It can also be useful to create opportunities for members of the community to come together on a digital forum like Zoom to have a shared experience, such as a communal ‘Mat Time.’

Teachers around New Zealand may also wish to stay in regular contact with one another and consider using messaging boards like Slack and Trello to communicate with others while working at a distance. They may also choose to use a messaging feature like Google Hang Out or Instant Messaging for Microsoft Teams.

Principle 5: Embrace the environment

Learning from home provides a unique opportunity for students to learn more about and from their local environment. Where possible, encourage students to spend time out of doors, exploring both the natural and ‘built’ features of their local community while staying close to home. Do what you can to ensure that children have daily opportunities to access fresh air and engage with the natural environment.

ECE teachers can encourage parents to take their children outside for regular periods of supervised play. It may be useful to share with parents some of the tenets of play-based learning and be prepared to answer questions they have about Te Whāriki or play-based learning in general. The Ministry of Education has developed a good resource to support you with these conversations, or see The Education Hub’s guides on the importance of outdoor play.

Primary and secondary school teachers can encourage their students to embrace the local environment by creating activities or assignments that require them to go outside and engage with the natural (or built features) of their environment. There are opportunities for teachers to develop tasks that address achievement objectives across all eight learning areas in the New Zealand Curriculum. The Department of Conservation website has some educational resources and activities, as does Forest and Bird. For more information, there are a myriad of resources online, including videos, guidebooks, digital lesson plans, and blogs.

Principle 6: Celebrate specific successes

It is important that students receive clear, specific, constructive, and accurate feedback on their home-learning tasks from trusted adults. The feedback can be verbal or written (for older children). Most importantly, it must be provided in a way that the student can understand and act upon. When students act on feedback and successfully complete a task, they should be recognised for their efforts. It is critical that the praise be specific and that the student fully understand what was done well and why they are being acknowledged. Generic feedback and general praise are rarely effective for improving learning, motivation or engagement.

It is arguably even more important to provide primary and secondary school students with very clear, specific, and informative feedback when they are working from home and there are few opportunities to interact and follow up on feedback given. In this scenario, every word counts! And, as always, it is imperative that feedback is given throughout the entire learning process. A useful framework for thinking about feedback is Hattie and Timperley’s feedback model, in which the authors suggest that effective feedback to students should answer three questions:

1. Where am I (the student) going? (Goal setting)

2. How am I going? (Feedback)

3. Where to next? (Feed Forward)

For more on giving effective feedback,  see The Education Hub’s resources.

While at home, it is also important that you acknowledge student achievement and celebrate their successes. This can be done virtually through the design of certificates or awards. Free, downloadable templates can be found here, here and here. You may also wish to design your own certificates from scratch using websites like Canva or create digital badges that children can save on their devices.

By Rachel Williamson-Dean


Rachel Williamson-Dean

Rachel Williamson-Dean is an experienced secondary school teacher, who has lived and taught in North America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Asia. She has a Master of Public and Population Health Degree (MPH – Dist) and a PhD in Health Education. Over the past ten years Rachel has worked with students and school leaders across New Zealand, including leading the digital literacy programme, The Summer Learning Journey, for which she received the NEXT Woman of the Year in Education 2018 award. 

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