Professor Deborah Eyre, Founder, and Chair at High Performance Learning, discusses why the learning-loss narrative is damaging. Not only does it risk creating low self-esteem and loss of hope in students, but the evidence from the learning sciences would suggest that a gap in learning isn’t usually detrimental in the long term. So we should be taking a more positive view. Learning is not linear, and progress is not wholly defined by time spent in class. Indeed, rather than being a lost generation, students who were schooled during COVID are likely to be more persistent and resilient than any who have gone before. The real plus being that if they encounter high-quality teaching post-pandemic then their progress should be truly rapid.
The catch-up culture is rife in many schools across the world. The story being played out is that students of all ages have been out of class, and so they have missed out and now need to catch up. That they will need extra lessons and will need to put in extra time. Headlines such “Covid-19: School pupils lost a third of education time in pandemic” even reached the reputable BBC Newsround programme aimed at young children. No wonder children are feeling stressed, seeing themselves as a lost generation blighted by COVID and destined never to recover. This narrative is truly damaging for children and young people.
A little evidence, and some perspective
Anecdotally, many of us have known of children who have been out of school for significant periods but have still gone on to achieve well. Children who have suffered longstanding illness, children whose families have taken them on extended family visits, children whose family have taken a gap year and travelled the world. A terrific teacher I know spent four years in a refugee camp, with very little schooling, and still succeeded when the right opportunities came her way.
But for this to work the child needs to feel confident that it will work. We have known from circa 1968 (Jacobson, 1965 )2that others' beliefs about students become the truth, because their beliefs impact on how students then behave. So, if the narrative is that learning loss leads to disaster, then our students will believe all is lost. This needs turning on its head.
Our students need to see themselves as able and likely to succeed.
It’s not success against the odds - we should be telling them they are the remarkable generation. They have just taken a crash course in how to be persistent, resilient, enterprising and open-minded. They have had experiences completely new to them and mostly they have adapted and thrived. They are better prepared for life and work then any generation before them. In High Performance Learning we work with schools to help them systematically embed these values, attitudes and attributes. COVID didn’t hinder in this quest – it helped. It has provided the perfect springboard for faster learning. Not catch-up but rather speed-up.
Learning is not a linear process
Of course, students did miss out on a significant amount of time in school and that has had an impact on the amount of the curriculum they have covered. But the learning sciences have amply demonstrated that learning is a convoluted process, and that the most significant and rapid learning happens not when the learner has covered the content but, when the learner owns that knowledge. When they have that ‘Ah ha’ moment where everything starts to connect and make sense. So let’s grasp the opportunity to teach for faster and deeper learning. Advanced cognition. Let’s set a demanding curriculum that allows us to accelerate progress via a focus on both the affective and cognitive aspects of teaching. Our students are ready to commit if we present a positive rather than a negative agenda.
Deep inequities within education have been amplified
It would be remiss not to recognise that some students have suffered disproportionately. Disadvantaged and vulnerable children often lacked technology access and meaningful support at home. In a study by Exeter University, 86% of the top fifth of earners reported being able either to make up a little or a lot of the lost teaching hours compared to 29% of the bottom fifth. So we need to take concerted action to support these students and accelerate their learning but we should never assume that they cannot do well. They can and if motivated and supported they will.
So in the post pandemic era let’s not cram the school day in a vain attempt to catch up. Instead let’s focus on quality teaching leading to rapid learning. And let’s appreciate that:
- A sense of safety, love and belonging where everyone feels able to thrive is key to rapid learning.
- Remote learning has not been a waste of time. Pupils have been taught and have learned new knowledge.
- Different pupils will have had very different experiences in terms of access and support. Some will have steamed ahead and others dropped back. Flex!
- Disadvantaged children will need the most support but don’t lower the bar. That will doubly disadvantage them.
- Students have become more independent. Build on these new skills, don’t revert to a dependency culture. Help pupils reflect on their newly acquired skills and the way meta-cognition and self-regulation can help them.
I passionately believe that every single child can achieve academic success and live a life full of opportunity and fulfilment regardless of their starting point. You too need to harness the philosophy of empowerment – driven by what we know about how children learn – and use the COVID experience to create a positive outlook and well-being in school. Don’t let COVID become another barrier to achievement, make it an enabler of success. Grasp the opportunity and re-imagine.
To drop into article as a pull-out quote:
“Meta-analysis of findings re. learning loss show that learning did not go backwards during COVID. Learning did not stop. Progress was almost at the same level as previously.”
Professor John Hattie, University of Melbourne source Outstanding School of Middle East Conference.