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Answer Sheet: A Better Way to Make Sense of Pandemic ‘Learning Loss’

This is the third piece I have published recently about “learning loss” — all with different views about how to look at what young people may have lost, not learned, or gained while schools were shut during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first was by Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, who started her piece with this provocative sentence, “There is no such thing as learning loss.” She argued that students have learned things during the pandemic that aren’t measured on standardized tests. As you might imagine, that drew a lot of strong responses.

The second was written by Bridget Terry Long, dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who wrote about how we can ensure this hasn’t been a lost year for students.

This new post argues that “learning loss is a faulty way to diagnose the challenges faced by children and youth as a result of the pandemic” and offers a different view — as well as how to move ahead.

It was written by William Penuel and Katherine Schultz. Penuel is a professor in the School of Education and Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies and works in partnership with teachers and with district and state leaders to promote equity in science education. Schultz is dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and professor of education.

By William Penuel and Katherine Schultz

We have all experienced loss during the pandemic. We have lost loved ones and we have lost many aspects of our lives that we thought we could rely on. As students return to classrooms, it is not surprising to hear policymakers, education leaders and parents raise concerns about “learning loss,” of students falling behind because of the disruptions to their schooling caused by the pandemic.

There have certainly been losses of school learning for too many students during the pandemic. However, there have also been tremendous gains that educators may not have expected, learning that may be hard to measure with tests.

Recently, school leaders from across the country have discussed proposals that teachers focus only on the reading and mathematics skills that are central to high stakes standardized testing in the coming year, to the exclusion of the arts, science and social studies. We are concerned about these proposals for several reasons.

We argue that learning loss is a faulty way to diagnose the challenges faced by children and youth as a result of the pandemic.

Of course, many students have been disconnected from school learning, particularly those children who have not had consistent access to the Internet and places where they can focus on learning at home. We also know that far too many students have suffered from isolation, making it harder to focus on traditional school tasks.

At the same time, during the pandemic, many children and youths have made sense of these challenges by creating and sharing videos, music and poetry to express themselves and connect across virtual spaces.

With their families, acting as scientists, they have investigated the ways covid-19 spreads and how to protect their mental and physical well-being. As historians, they have studied our nation’s past and present, organizing responses and protesting racial injustice in the streets. They have creatively used materials to construct new worlds and ideas.

Although this knowledge is not likely to be captured by standardized tests, many young people have not lost learning. Instead, they have been figuring out new ways to investigate and connect with one another and with adults in a time of upheaval and uncertainty.

Instead of focusing on loss, what happens if we begin by asking what young people and their teachers have learned in the past year?

Educators might first center their attention on the importance of connections. When school went remote last March, teachers and students struggled to stay connected to each other. Over time, as students and teachers learned to navigate the new digital world of schooling, they figured out new ways to connect.

Many teachers called students’ homes for the first time, and some even delivered materials to children who couldn’t download them. Rather than typical phone calls that relay disciplinary news, these have been calls to check in with families out of concern for their well-being and a desire to connect.

Teachers, who may have been worried about talking to parents because of their lack of facility with the parents’ home languages, have been surprised by shared experiences and new opportunities to connect with parents.

We suggest that teachers continue to reach out to families and to students by continuing a practice of beginning each class by checking in with each student (and with each other) that many have started with their online classes: How are you? What do you need right now? What is giving you joy? We suggest that district leaders and building principals make decisions that ensure that teachers have the time for this important work.

Next, educators might start with both what and how their students have learned during the pandemic. They might invite students to share what they’ve experienced during the pandemic and how they have felt through poetry, art, music, dance and theater, rather than focusing on test-taking skills.

Educators might help students investigate the social and political systems that have led Black and Brown communities to be impacted more negatively by the pandemic and policing. And they might provide opportunities for them to connect what they’ve learned about the spread of covid-19 and vaccines to a broader understanding of disease, medicine and public health.

Rather than narrowing the curriculum, these ideas suggest that supporting our students in the coming months means cultivating and repairing relationships. It means listening to students and inviting their curiosity, passions and ideas into the classroom. And it demands keeping the curriculum broad, not limiting it to reading and mathematics. All that will come from narrowing the curriculum is more loss and disengagement, rather than healing and repair.

We will need students’ initiative, creativity and wisdom in the future, to help us promote racial justice, face the worldwide climate emergency, address the next pandemic or public health emergency more quickly and dream new ways of living in better relation with one another and the planet. As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s find ways to support our students and affirm what they have gained this year not what was lost.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

William R. Penuel

William R. Penuel is a Professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research focuses on teacher learning and or...

Katherine Schultz

Kathy Schultz is Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and with the Renée Crown Wellness Institute. She was D...