Thoughts on “Learning Loss”

Four Peaks – cc photo j.s. delp

In Kansas, on warm summer evenings, the fireflies come out and a game of chase begins. Short bursts of luminescence draw a child’s attention, but by the time they arrive at the location, the firefly (and it’s tell-tale flash) are typically gone. Another flash. More chasing. Same results. Kids (with their boundless energy) will continue the game for a long time, chasing after the constantly moving targets, sustained by an occasional capture. But in most cases, the firefly escapes, continuing it’s brilliant tease elsewhere.

After a challenging year navigating a pandemic, a new educational term has gained traction and seems to be a popular buzz phrase — especially among politicians and companies that hope to profit from a “fix” to the “problem.”

Learning Loss.

I know that (at least in Arizona) a significant amount of money is going to be spent in efforts to mitigate the “learning loss” that has occurred during the past year. I have discussed my thoughts on this in a couple other posts: Summer School Reimagined and Our Kids Will Be Okay. In summary, I am not fond of the term “learning loss” or the implication that because of the pandemic our kids are “falling behind” (read Our Kids Will Be Okay). There can be no argument that our students have experienced loss and missed opportunities during the past year, but I am willing to suggest that they have likely learned a lot. Some of what they have learned may have been difficult life lessons and it is likely that their “schooling” has not been equivalent to a non-pandemic year, but we need to remember that the traditional educational system does not hold a monopoly on learning. Far from it. There are many ways (and places) to learn. In addition, students falling behind in the curriculum (based on standards largely informed by for-profit companies) is not equivalent to lost learning.

I was discussing my dislike for the phrase “learning loss” with a friend and colleague. He shared this article by James WilliamsWhy There’s No Such Thing as Lost Learning. Mr. Williams, who is in England, has written an excellent piece that I believe is worth a few minutes of your time to read and consider. He outlines the premise of the article with this statement.

The narrative focuses on the idea that children only have one chance: that what is not done now is lost, and this is extremely damaging for their future education or employment prospects.

The danger here is that we risk creating a generation of children who will forever be known as the “lost” generation. But their learning has not been lost – because you cannot lose something you never had. 

Yet, we seem determined to chase after “learning loss” — much like children after fireflies — lest it forever disappear.

There can be no arguing that our children (just like our entire society) have missed out on opportunities during the pandemic. But these opportunities are not entirely, or even primarily, related to school 1. Kids have missed out on being with friends, participating in activities (sports, dances, plays, concerts, etc.), and they have experienced a significant disruption in routine. Things our entire society — even world — have endured. Hopefully we will begin to have more opportunities, in the near future, to return to something that resembles “normal.” But, when that happens, we are going to have to pick-up from where we are and move forward.

We can’t go back in time and make up for what we think we have missed. Those experiences never happened. They don’t exist. However, we can be more aware, and appreciative, of the opportunities that lie ahead. Choosing to make the most of what we are given.

One final thought. Much of the discussion, and concern, about students not being in a physical school building has been centered on kids on the margins — those dealing with poverty, trauma, and social-emotional issues. These are valid concerns. But, they were concerns before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and they will continue to be concerns when the pandemic is over. The question is will there continue to be fervent advocacy on behalf of these children. While hopeful, my past experience leaves me skeptical.

If we choose to continue the narrative that “learning loss” is real and that it is a significant concern we at least need to put it in perspective. If the issues and challenges our students face are an iceberg, any loss of “learning” (i.e. curriculum) they have experienced in the last year would be the very tip. Lurking below the surface are a plethora of issues that deserve the lion’s share of our attention. Poverty. Social-emotional challenges. Racism. Equitable access to opportunities — in education and beyond. Food insecurity. Funding disparities. The list could go on. Schools (educators) have been tasked with supporting students in all of these areas, but there has typically been very little concern about providing the tools and resources necessary to do this with fidelity. When I consider this, I am reminded of the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu.

There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.

Indeed. Let’s head upstream. What are the root causes of our problems and how can they be addressed? I am certain there are answers, but I am equally certain that they don’t involve more time in a classroom, or chasing after the ghosts of “learning loss.”


1 As a quick aside, note the difficulty that our society has in differentiating between the terms school, education, and learning. They are not synonyms.

I am currently on Spring Break. During this time, the focus of my writing will not be on education. You can check out my writing on a variety of topics at my alternative site, Exit Slips. This is my “writing practice” blog, so anything goes — from serious to silly.

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