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Enough with the Learning Loss

This article was originally posted on on March 29, 2021.

In March 2020, when everyone was forced to transition to remote instruction, it seemed as if we were on the brink of the next revolution in education. It became clear to many that there were some flaws in the way we had been approaching teaching and learning. There were grand plans about how we could use this opportunity to redesign the experience for everyone involved. To their credit, many teachers did just that. They stepped out of their comfort zone and tried technology that they wouldn’t have ever used, created lessons that were accessible in the digital space and shifted their focus away from grades. Many students also developed skills that aren’t typically measured in a traditional school environment such as independence and time management. I was optimistic that we had turned a corner. However, there are still too many teachers, administrators and parents anxiously awaiting the return to “normal.” Maybe it’s the familiarity with an antiquated system. Maybe it’s fatigue or not knowing where or how to start making these changes. Whatever the reason, the revolution never came and I don’t see it on the horizon. And more often than not lately, the defense of returning to our previous model is learning loss. I see that term everywhere I look recently and it drives me crazy. At best, it’s a flawed term to describe a different concept that people are truly referring to. At worst, it’s a blatant diversion to shift the focus from the inefficiencies in the current educational system to the students.

Learning Loss as a Flawed Term

What is learning? By definition, it’s the acquisition of knowledge or skills. Once you have acquired this knowledge or skill, it is difficult to lose. There’s a reason the saying “it’s like riding a bike” exists. Many years can pass from the last time you rode a bike, but you’ll still be able to do it. We just passed the year anniversary of the shift to remote/hybrid instruction, which makes it hard for me to believe that students have any learning loss. So, are we discussing the reduced opportunity for development? In some conversations that I’ve had with other educators, this is their definition of learning loss. You’ll get no argument from me that the current circumstances have limited the amount of practice we can do and content we can cover. That’s just the reality of our situation. Everything takes longer and we have less contact time. That’s valid. However, that’s not learning loss. I want my students back in the classroom full-time as soon as possible so I can provide these developmental opportunities. I don’t think you would get an argument from many teachers on that point.

Learning Loss as a Diversion

Learning is not a linear process. It is not a race or competition. Most importantly, it is not the same for all students.
Learning is not a linear process. It is not a race or competition. Most importantly, it is not the same for all students.

Learning is not a linear process. It is not a race or competition. Most importantly, it is not the same for all students. Our students come from diverse backgrounds, with varying experiences and abilities. It’s also not unusual to have students in your class that have a year or more difference in age. With this diversity in student body, some students are developmentally ready for skills and content that others are not. Our approach to education should reflect that, and there are many great educators that do understand this and implement approaches that serve their entire student body. However, I’ve come across teachers that I can tell you what they’re going to do on the 143rd day of school regardless of who’s in front of them. They follow the pacing of the curriculum and cover all of the content that’s on their list. While we were in a face-to-face environment, the inefficiencies of this model could be masked by extra help, in-class support or a variety of other approaches that could help some students survive the class without truly learning the material. You may respond that that is the exception and not the rule. For this extreme case, you’re right, but it’s an exaggeration of a larger problem. Our view of learning has become, how much content can we shove into our students’ heads? The lessons are geared toward preparing students for the test, which is very different than designing a lesson to provide a learning opportunity. Not to mention that trying to use the same lessons without modification in a remote setting will not have the same impact. And often, after the content is assessed, it’s never revisited. If you were to revisit that content, how would your students fare? Just because they answered a question correctly on a test in October doesn’t mean they learned it. But we’re working within a system that values product over process. Afterall, everyone thinks they understand what a B or an 84 means. It’s easy. But what few will admit is that the grades were always just the support for their classroom observations. Teachers already knew how students would perform before they ever took the test. And if we’re being really honest, at the end of a marking period or semester, they would massage those grades to reflect what they thought a student deserved. What’s happened now is teachers don’t have as many opportunities to observe students and can’t collect and modify points in the way that they did before. It now becomes very difficult to communicate what students know and can do. Rather than address these issues and develop more appropriate instructional, assessment and reporting models, let’s shift the focus to our students because we all want what’s best for them. If we focus on their “learning loss”, we don’t have to investigate all of our inefficiencies that have been revealed by remote and hybrid instruction.

Final Thoughts

I want students back in the classroom as soon as possible for as long as possible, providing it is safe to do so. I believe we are all more effective educators in a face-to-face setting. The connections we make with students are stronger. It is easier to identify their strengths and areas of opportunity and provide the appropriate support. My concern is with using a false narrative of learning loss as the push to get students back to the classroom without addressing the underlying issues with our educational system. Students are learning. They are gaining skills and content knowledge, some of which are difficult to measure by traditional means. With some adjustments to our approach, we can support them more effectively than we ever have before.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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David Frangiosa
David Frangiosa is a high school science teacher from Northern NJ and the co-author of Going Gradeless: Shifting the Focus to Student Learning, Corwin Press. Over the past six years, he has been performing action research on grade reform and the impact of various instructional approaches. He is a contributor to and

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