The idea that our kids are missing out on so much of their schooling at present has led to many commentators and researchers beginning to talk in terms of ‘learning loss’ – and attempts to quantify exactly how far behind the ‘norms’ or ‘standards’ those who are now required to stay at home and have their learning mediated online will be. But is this how we should be thinking?
Yesterday I had the privilege of joining again in an online meeting with the group of educators I’ve been working with in North West Arkansas for the past few years now. Like educators in NZ, these teachers and principals are all having to work with their students online while their schools are closed due to COVID-19. Our conversations began with a general catch-up on how things are going, and stories of the challenges being faced as each school grapples with the complexities of being ‘thrown in the deep end’ of working remotely – uncharted territory for most.
Many of the stories were familiar to what is happening here in NZ, and in most parts of the world I imagine. This group shared about way that the state and each school district had responded initially to the challenge by providing set curricular materials to support what these teachers were doing. In the first week or so there was a huge effort to distribute these materials and establish a set of expectations around what should be covered etc. This, in part, was driven by the concerns about ‘learning loss’, and how far behind these students may fall in terms of achieving their grade level expectations as a result of not being able to attend school.
The reality emerged, as each teacher shared more of their story, that as the weeks have progressed, fewer and fewer of them have been using the state or district provided materials – at least not in the way or the extent they were intended. Instead I heard some fascinating stories of teachers exploring completely new and different ways of engaging with their students remotely, and of how the impact and effectiveness of this was being observed and appreciated – by the teachers, the students and their parents. As one of the teachers in the group mentioned at one point; “we should stop all this talk about learning loss, and focus instead on learning gain – what it is that we’re gaining from this whole experience and won’t be keen to ‘let go’ of as we return to our physical classrooms!“
So what were some examples of the ‘learning gain’ that I heard in this call…?
- Parents are critical in the support of student learning, not just in crisis, but always. The increased communications with parents through this process has given these teachers much greater insights into the home context of their learners, and as a consequence, more opportunities to ‘tailor’ the learning to meet the needs of each learner. Parents also expressed appreciation for being more ‘in the loop’ with the learning that was occurring and understanding how to best support this.
- The role of teachers has shifted. Despite the challenges of working in a home environment not always suited to support them, these teachers are discovering the joy of teaching in new ways, the ability to connect with their students and families in different ways, and the benefits of designing learning so that learners are enabled to ‘navigate’ their way through learning tasks and challenges in ways that are much more ‘learner and learning centred’. One of the key points of discussion was around the approach of some of the schools to build teaching teams, designing learning so that teachers are working in pairs for all of the remote learning provision, with lots of agreement about the effectiveness of this.
- The benefits of a local curriculum are evidence. Many of these teachers are used to having to follow strict district curriculum guidelines and support materials. With the difficulty in making these available to all students, these teachers have begin designing their own materials and presenting their learners with different kinds of learning challenges that reflect the richness of the local environment – their homes – making use of what is available to them in the process. On of the teachers noted; “parents are appreciating what the teachers are sending out vs what the state has been sending’.
- Learners can be connected differently – moving beyond a focus on grade level or age-based cohorts. In the home context there may be learners of different ages, and providing learning tasks and challenges that can be engaged in by them as a family or social group rather than isolating them as individuals based on age and stage.
- Great learning is experiential – a lesson observed for both the teachers and their learners. Teachers are finding they are giving greater emphasis to providing their learners with learning activity over simply completing task sheets or reading assignments etc. As a result, teachers are observing greater levels of motivation, engagement and participation in many aspects of their learning – despite the physical distance from their teacher and each other.
- Learning doesn’t have to be discipline-based. One teacher explained how his team of teachers have moved beyond subject-based teaching and are now designing learning that is cross-disciplinary, based on themes or topics. The ability to do this in the remote learning setting has created opportunities to achieve this in ways they’ve felt constrained by in their physical learning environment – pointing to the extent to which our physical structures (rooms, timetables etc) can be inhibitors to effective learning.
- The best professional learning occurs through on-the-job inquiry and reflection. Perhaps the biggest learning for this group has come from the amount they have learned in a very short space of time from being ‘thrust into’ this new way of working. These teachers are exploiting the opportunity to ‘visit’ each others online classrooms and engage in professional dialogue about what they see/hear etc. As one of the teachers put it; “you could put us in a room for 8 hours of PD and we wouldn’t have gained such value and insights about our practice.“
- The work of teachers is not simply about academic achievement. Learners are unique individuals, growing physically, emotionally, morally – as well as academically, and focusing on just one part of this complex development will fail to address their needs as whole people. The group focused on the importance of social and emotional learning to create a platform for engagement and participation in learning. They also identified the need to design resources that enable the learners to develop by thinking about the process of learning – not simply the learning content that needs to be ‘covered’.
I’m looking forward to further conversations with this group of inspirational educators – as they reflect on what this remote learning experience has allowed them to discover and appreciate, and how they now plan to bring that learning back into their classrooms and schools once they are allowed to do so. The excitement I heard in this conversation suggests there’s a lot they will re-think and set about changing. This not learning loss – it’s learning gain!