What Is Learning Loss? Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Obsess Over It

What Is Learning Loss? Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Obsess Over It

Schools and office buildings have been doing fire drills for years as a standard practice for emergency preparedness. And recently, my dad reminded me that he practiced hiding under desks as a young student during the Cold War. But, what about emergency drills for a global pandemic? I didn’t know of any and really, how could anyone have seen this coming?
Either way, everyone was sent home from schools with the expectation to continue on with the curriculum. With little notice or support, educators across North America pivoted their lessons and adopted new technologies to ensure students continued to learn and receive whatever social emotional support educators could provide remotely.
Now as we look towards the upcoming school year, with vaccine rollouts helping to get everyone back into the classrooms, there is another widespread concern that seems to be everywhere: learning loss.

What Is ‘Learning Loss’

The term ‘learning loss’ refers to the possible loss of literacy and numeracy skills when students are out of a formal classroom setting for lengthy periods of time. Typically, the term has come up around the topic of summer break and the idea that when students take a few months off of school-based learning, they’re further behind in September than they were the previous May or June.
With many students spending the entirety of last year outside of the classroom, the concept of learning loss has become a hot topic and is putting pressure on education leaders to rectify the situation. But, with everything that students have been through this past year, has learning really been lost?
There is no question that hybrid or fully remote learning did not work for all students and there’s no question that the pandemic shone a spotlight on the socioeconomic divide among students. From a lack of access to devices and internet connection, to a lack of child supervision when guardians had to work outside the home, to the spike in mental health issues, the pandemic was fraught with hurdles that parents and educators had to jump, and sometimes trip, over to keep kids learning and supported.
But, educators rolled up their sleeves and worked long, difficult days to keep the curriculum on track. Students adapted and persevered through school while dealing with the various at-home difficulties of the pandemic. For most educators and students, I would be pretty fed up with all the talk of learning loss.

learning gaps

All Experiences Are Teachers

In June, the New York Times featured short stories of kids from across the world reflecting on what they learned during the pandemic. These first hand experiences show us that while “the virus has been tough; plenty of kids, it turns out, have been tougher”. These stories, and those featured in Students Respond to Adults’ Fixation on ‘Learning Loss’ show that living through the global crisis taught kids a new sense of maturity, responsibility, and gratitude.
As John Ewing points out in his article The Ridiculousness Of Learning Loss, learning is a complicated topic. He reminds us of Plutarch’s famous concept of the mind being more of a fire to be kindled instead of a vessel that just needs filling up. So, while there will be reports published on the number of months of learning lost, Ewing suggests that the loss experienced by students during the pandemic is not entirely a loss.
As a mathematician, Ewing reminds us that there is value in the mental process that is required from stepping away from a topic and having to recollect and reassemble the pieces. This process of reassembling often leads to a greater understanding of the topic, whether it’s a school subject, riding a bike, or playing an instrument.

The Impact of Labeling a Generation of Students

Sadly, the losses experienced by students of the pandemic extend beyond just academics. In his article Our Kids Are Not Broken, former educator and author Ron Berger points out that students lost family members, financial security, emotional well-being, as well as connection with their peers and teachers. Berger acknowledged that it’s perfectly sensible to worry about academic loss but feels that obsessively measuring academic progress and loss is out of tune with the moment. If returning to school becomes a testing and triaging center for kids to become ‘fixed’, it could take an even harder toll of kids emotionally and psychologically.
Thoughtful strategies will be required to get students back to where they need to be academically and socially come the new school year, because if students are sorted into remediation groups based on levels of learning loss, “they’re going to be sorted in a way that will only exacerbate the equity issues.” according to Berger. “If there’s a pressing need for measurement, it’s in the reckoning of the social, emotional, and psychological toll of the last 12 months”.
Research has also demonstrated a direct connection between a student’s mindset and their academic success. The rhetoric around lost learning could do more damage to students’ academic confidence and achievement than the actual months of learning loss.
Instead of focusing mainly on academic measurement and dividing students based on standardized testing results, Berger suggests that schools should start by prioritizing the social and emotional needs of students. This includes addressing their sense of safety, self-worth, and academic confidence.

Help Students Feel More Confident in Their Back-to-School Experience

Rebuilding relationships with students will be very important come the new school year. Ensuring that every student has an adult in the building that cares about them may sound like a tall task, but these relationships are vital for student success especially after the last year. In their paper on the science of learning and development, researchers and educators Pamela Cantor, MD, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Karen Pittman found that “The presence and quality of our relationships may have more impact on learning and development than any other factor.”
When everyone returns to the classroom in the fall, there will inevitably be different learning gaps and personal struggles within each class of students. Consider providing students with a “mindset reset” by teaching them about a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. Knowing that they have the ability to strengthen their mind—like they would strengthen a muscle—teaches them their achievements are not based on a fixed level of intelligence, but that it’s all about the effort they put in. If you’re interested in learning about how Carol Dweck coined these mindset terms from her years of studying children’s response to challenging situations, check out her TedTalk here.
Even when everyone is back in classrooms in the fall, educators will still have an uphill journey because of the pandemic’s impact on society and society’s reliance on the education system. For years to come, educational leadership and politicians will continue to quantify and talk about the learning setbacks of the pandemic. But, regardless of how schools decide to talk about learning loss, what educators were able to pull off during the past year is not lost on me.