standardized tests

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

Searching for da Vinci

True learners are multidimensional, they are passionately curious about the world around them. The Gateway to 21st Century Skills blog wrote a few posts about Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential example of a Renaissance Man, that got my wheels turning today.  da Vinci was a scientist, inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, cartographer, mathematician, and the list goes on. He had an insatiable curiosity and was deeply creative and innovative.  da Vinci is still highly regarded as a brilliant creative genius, his thirst for learning is just as relevant today as it was 500 years ago.  Here is my question, is the current education system set up to foster the da Vinci’s of the world?

I think education likes to imagine itself as creating a population of individuals who excel in a range of subject areas. After all, we include a variety of subjects and topics that we push students through so that they can learn a little bit of everything.  The problem: our students don’t really excel at any of them because they aren’t given the opportunity to become passionately curious about any of them.  The curriculum that we offer students is one dimensional, it’s purpose has become to prepare students for testing.  Did you get that? We have created a system that prepares students to take a test. Created by the system.  What do the tests tell us? That we have students who can pass tests.  Does that sound like educational incest to anyone else?

Let me give you an example from my student teaching experience 9 years ago.  When I was an elementary student, I didn’t have to take the state test for Colorado (CSAP) because it hadn’t been invented yet.  I took the ITBS test about every 3 years and thought nothing of it.  When I started student teaching, I was curious about this state test that I would be preparing students to take (and we were encouraged to teach students how to take it).  When we got the practice tests in, I flipped through to see what sort of content the test covered.  I wanted to make sure that I had equipped my students with the necessary knowledge so that they wouldn’t have those freeze moments that can throw a students into  standardized test tail spin.  As I was flipping through the 3rd grade test I read the following question:

If you wanted to learn more about Whales, which letter would you search under in an encyclopedia?

Now, don’t cheat and look below at the answer….you said “W” didn’t you?

That would be wrong.

The choices given to students: B, M, T, or F

Seriously.

The correct answer: M for mammal

The answer my 3rd grade students would guess: B for Beluga Whale

Number one: IF any of my students were searching for whale, you know where they would look first: Google. It wouldn’t occur to most of them to go to the encyclopedia as a first reference.

Number two: If my students were searching for whale in the encyclopedia they would look under the “W” first. You know what? They would find whale. They might eventually also explore mammal under “M” when they looked at the bottom of the article and read “see also mammal”.

Number three: This is the most ridiculous line of questioning that I have seen, what information exactly is that question trying to glean? That my students can think critically to solve a problem without an obvious answer?  I would say they did pretty well by choosing “B” for Beluga Whale.

Are we creating a culture that nurtures the da Vinci’s of the world?  No, we are creating a culture that has lost all sense of curiosity, passion, and exploration. We create a culture where there is one correct answer, that we will give you, so that you can pass a test.

If the current culture doesn’t foster a da Vinci outlook on the world, what kind of culture could?  One where students were allowed to explore passions. One where students were allowed to view learning as life. One where students could see that subjects of learning are not really separate entities, but rather that learning is multidimensional, overlapping, and interwoven.  When I look at what da Vinci accomplished, it is apparent to me that this is someone who understood that all learning is life, it is connected.  I suspect that da Vinci didn’t set out to be a jack of all trades; I suspect that he set out to learn and as he learned it led to other disciplines, interests, and knowledge.  What results: a man who was able to use his unique talents and giftings to change the world.

If we send all students through the exact same subjects, the exact same way, to meet the requirements on the same test, do we have any hope of fostering students who are able to use their unique talents and gifts to change the world?  Or, will they graduate from high school with a degree that sends them into the next system where they are now expected to undo all the learning that has made them look the same and decide what makes the unique?

I’m sending out a call to create the da Vinci culture.