It isn’t hyperbole to say that the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Think about your life before March 2020 – all aspects of your life. Our thoughts, feelings, patterns, and actions were all impacted. If you step back and examine the landscape of our field, education is wrestling with a significant change from COVID-19, student learning loss.
The core principle of student learning loss is that learning decays over time when students don’t engage with it regularly. Placed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of engagement came due to many circumstances. Among these were family and life tragedies, mental health and wellness, and a switch in priorities emphasizing survival. Regarding education, a switch to online learning has been identified as a decline in students’ attendance, a decrease in the quality of teaching, and a shift in the focus of education from content knowledge and skill development to student well-being. All of these changes are understandable as no one had experienced or had been trained in how to be educators, or students, during a pandemic.
In turn, we all reacted to our realities in different ways resulting in a multitude of outcomes.
Among these, the phenomenon of student learning loss has become one of the most recognized and referenced outcomes. The narrative about a lack of learning, however, must also be complicated by schools by asking questions like:
What exactly did students “lose”?
Who lost the most?
Why did loss differ among our students?
School districts then must examine their response to learning loss. This is complicated. One key component is messaging to families and faculty.
The deficiency framing of learning loss can sidetrack schools that will struggle to play constant catch up and remediate students. This approach also sends a negative message to parents, and students, who get labeled as “losers.” Rather, schools should recognize that learning loss happened every year and that, like any good educator, we should meet students where they are in order to best teach them. This recognition of the need for intentional and personal differentiation by teachers should have been a teaching norm before COVID-19. Similar to steep advancements in digital learning, teachers should be supported with their differentiation practices, not remediation, this school year.
There is another, more positive, alternative to the impact of COVID-19 on students – learning gain.
Although not referenced as often as its pejorative cousin, students have expressed learning gains due to education changes. For one, there is a segment of students who preferred online learning and excelled with this format. Another rare framing is that students learned a lot between March – June, just not necessarily about academic classes. Students’ lived experiences should be valued and seen as a lever for academic learning. But empowering students to see their lives as viable sources of knowledge is not often a disposition held by educators.
Some of the features of pre-pandemic life have returned in full or have synthesized with new behaviors. Here, the right questions – “What did students learn during this time?”, “What’s working better now than it was before?”, and “How am I designing learning experiences?” can alter our understanding of learning loss, our profession, and our students for a more productive and successful school year.