pandemic

The Myth of Learning Loss

Over the course of the last year, there have been numerous articles and news stories speculating on the “Learning Loss” that will result from this pandemic. I’ve noticed the fear in both parent and education groups as well; all are asking the same questions: what toll will this take on learning? What will be the learning loss? Did the last year cause lasting damage to our youth?

As I read through these white papers, articles, and posts, I see the fear. I see curriculum companies rushing to the rescue with remedial remedies, parents clamor for a summer full of tutoring, and teachers debating the best way to catch kids up in the next school year. I wonder if the fear is causing us to rush for answers responding to the wrong question? 

Learning loss is a construct that only exists within the education framework focused on a scripted curriculum where learning happens in a predetermined way at a predetermined time and has standardized test goals and outcomes. It’s easy to become obsessed with the wrong outcomes without questioning if this is even the right goal. It strikes me that in most of the conversations around learning loss, the focus is finite, the short-term impact on the test score rather than the infinite, the long-term growth and learning. It seems that scarcity is the animating energy of the “Learning Loss” conversation. Students within a finite education system where the score is the desired outcome may have the appearance of learning loss because they are compared to an unmoving goal that doesn’t recognize things like personal development, the impact of trauma, or a pandemic. The rigidity of such a system of education cannot work in a world that is in a constant state of change. The Covid-19 pandemic acted as a prophet, revealing what was inherently broken in astonishing detail. 

Learning loss is not a concept within a framework where the learner is at the center of a living curriculum. Learning loss can only exist in a system that never started with the learner at the center to begin with. Within a living curriculum, the learning meets students where they are. Learning is a process, not an event. Abundance is the animating energy of a living curriculum. It is always asking, inviting, growing, and adapting to the changing world and the changing learner. A living curriculum ensures that we are meeting students in this movement of time. It puts the learner in the place of being an active participant in learning and not a passive consumer. It tells students that they matter, that all of what they are experiencing in their lives can be part of their learning experience. If we are to prepare children for life outside the classroom fully, their education has to be more living, a moving river rather than a stagnant pool. Every day is a brand new opportunity to meet the student where they are. 

So, back to the beginning, are we asking the right questions? Let’s take a closer look at the assumptions inherent in the “learning loss” conversation:

  • Assumption 1: learning equates to how much of the curriculum we were able to get through this year compared to previous years.
  • Assumption 2: seat time and passing tests are accurate measures of learning.
  • Assumption 3: Correct responses reveal learning gain, and incorrect responses indicate a learning loss.
  • Assumption 4: what has been lost will show up on a test when comparing it to aggregate data of previous years.

As education researcher Alfie Kohn points out, “But as numerous analyses have shown, standardized tests are not just imperfect indicators; they measure what matters least about teaching and learning.” 

We know that coverage of curriculum does not equate to learning. Test scores are not proof of learning; as friend and author George Couros states, “If you can write in a report card that a student can do something in October that they can’t do in January, is that report card still relevant?” 

I worry that too many schools won’t know the individual child well enough even to begin to identify and address “learning loss.” Aggregate data comparisons to previous years can’t possibly tell the story of who a child is and what they need today.

At Anastasis, we’ve worked hard to ensure that every child is the center of a living curriculum, and their growth forward is the goal. We meet them wherever they are and keep them moving forward, not just this year, every year. Knowing each child well means that we can take advantage of the untestable, newly learned skills that were also part of this year. The adaptability, resilience, problem-solving, new modes of communication, scheduling, and technology skills can become part of their forward momentum and growth. The learning journey at Anastasis continues as one of abundance. 

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.” -Jean Piaget

Cross Posted at http://anastasisacademy.com

Here’s to throwing our hat over the wall…

There is this story, attributed to JFK’s grandfather, that as a boy, he and his friends would walk along a stone wall in Ireland on their way home from school and, as kids do, they dared him to climb over the wall. The wall was tall, formidable, and scary. He decided that the only way he could guarantee completing this challenge was to throw his hat over the wall so that he would have no choice but to go after it. The hat was part of his school uniform, and he couldn’t go home without it.

We are in a throw your hat over the wall moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all capable of massive change in the short term. Nearly overnight, we went from our usual way of life, to teaching and learning online, working from home, social distancing, wearing masks in public, grocery shopping differently, and adapting to a new way of life. Eight weeks into this pandemic and we see that we are capable of really significant pivots.

So often in education, I hear how resistant some educators are to change. If this moment is teaching us anything, it’s that we are capable of throwing our hat over the wall. Teachers all over the world have done this. How can we capitalize on this moment? How can we define a new normal with new priorities? How can we involve students in the re-imagination?

What we choose to do next matters, we can double down on our efforts to keep the broken status quo, or we can use the opportunity to re-imagine our system.

Who and what will we choose to support? Kids, families, and teachers? Or curriculum companies, tests, and bureaucracies?

There’s nothing sacred about spelling tests as a way to learn spelling, flash cards to learn math facts, curriculum as a way to teach, testing as a way to collect data. There’s nothing sacred about most of what we do every day in education, and yet we hold tightly to these institutions as we make decisions about what school will look like. These constructs have been put into place to accomplish certain goals; namely to get kids to pass a test, have a certain GPA, and go to college.

When we consider how to do education better, how to make it more equitable, more meaningful, we often do so from the vantage point of old constructs.

As if they are sacred.

As if they are worth preserving.

This is an opportunity to engage in design thinking that will forever transform our schools. Where does this design thinking begin? With empathy. With what is actually sacred: the students.

This moment in time has reminded me how essential this step is (unfortunately, it’s one we regularly leapfrog in education). Who are our students as individuals? Who are their families?

When we refocus our organizing principals around the actual students in our care, when we begin from a place of empathy we can anticipate meaningful changes in our education system. Post pandemic I hope that education doesn’t look the same. I hope that we have taken a step back and hung question marks on the things we take for granted.

What might starting with the student (empathy) look like?

*Class sizes will be smaller. Part of this will be out of health necessity, but I hope the bigger driver of this decision is that we’ve considered the individual student first. With small class sizes, we can offer dynamic, student-focused learning that is tailored to the learner rather than the static curriculum currently being spoon-fed.

*Curriculum will be dynamic and living. We’ll focus less on what content has been covered and focus more on critical thinking, problem solving, discernment, research, and creative expression. Curriculum will meet students where they are rather than demand everyone be in the same place.

*We’ll step away from siloed subjects and engage students in inquiry. We’ll consider that students live in a world that’s subjectless and ask that learning be immersive. We’ll recognize that financial literacy, digital literacy, and statistical literacy are vital.

*We’ll remember that learning is so much bigger and more beautiful than the meaningless data battles we’ve insisted on in the past. What was one of the first things to go amid pandemic? Standardized testing. Students will be better off as a result. Learning isn’t about the data we collect, or how much content was memorized. Learning is immersive and relational. Assessment practices will be for the student. We’ll return to the Greek root of the word assessment (asidere) to sit beside. Assessment will be used to guide learning and as a way for students to self reflect.

*I’ve seen many politicians, parents, and educators voice concerns about students being behind in learning as a result of the pandemic. Should they repeat the grade level? What will we do to catch them up? The pandemic is shining a light on a problem that’s been true the whole time. Students have ALWAYS developed at different rates and in their own time. Nothing about this moment is actually unusual. What is different is that we have a spotlight on the inherent flaws in our systemized one-size-fits-all approach to education that promotes kids to the next level because of their age. What a wonderful opportunity to completely lose grade levels as a way of advancement and instead, let every student advance as they are developmentally ready. How do we organize classrooms? Based on social/emotional maturation. Who is their peer group? Who can they be vulnerable in learning with?

* We are being reminded that social-emotional literacy isn’t something to tack on to school policies or a curriculum, rather it’s the life force within the system. After physical needs are met, emotional needs are very next in the pyramid that makes it possible to learn. When students come back to the classroom, we will be met with complex emotions and unique forms of trauma. We’ll find ourselves in charge of these wonderful, fearful, joyful, exuberant, grief-stricken, complicated, anxious, lovely, overwhelmed children. This has always been the case but, I suspect as we return to school, we are going to be met with the complexity that all of these emotions can exist simultaneously. We’ll be more acutely aware of them. Kids and families will be looking to educators for help, stability, and understanding. How will we meet them? How will we commit to navigating this together? We need to know our students (empathy) and their families well so that we can meet their unique needs. Educators know it’s never been about just teaching kids. As educators we are connected to every single part of society. How families eat, work, access heath care, are supported in mental health, the jobs they hold. All of humanity intersects in the classroom and it impacts how we do what we do in the classroom. This pandemic has given us more awareness of this reality than ever before as educators scramble to fill the gaps that society generally overlooks because “someone” is taking care of it. The way that this crisis impacts society is going to impact our classrooms and the learning available on any given day as we navigate base physical and emotional needs that haven’t been met. The only reasonable response is to begin with empathy. We will need to be stronger advocates than ever before and we’ll have to consider the whole child in every decision made.

Here’s to throwing our hat over the wall. Here’s to remembering who is sacred in education and designing around them.