Let’s Not Think in Terms of Learning Loss — Let’s Focus on Where Students Have Gained

Sean Slade
August, 2023

Originally published in EdSurge, this article discusses the focus on 'learning loss' as a result of the pandemic, and asks us to reconsider what our students have learned during this time.

As we gear up for yet another school year, we in education have a choice to make on what we will value going forward. The past year has been one of loss, of course, but it has also been a year of gain. And what we decide to focus on will go a long way toward determining how we, and our students, approach yet another unprecedented school year.

First, it may be helpful to reframe the recent past. Has it been a time marked by the absence of school, or, rather, a transitional period where we began the difficult process of transforming what school might be in the future? Was it a year-and-a-half framed by so-called “learning-loss,” or will it be seen as a time when we made gains in areas that are desperately needed but often overlooked or divorced from the curriculum and benchmarks we typically use to measure progress.

The answers to these questions are difficult to wrestle with. Sometimes they take a complete mind shift. But they are necessary if we want to truly reprioritize what students should be taking away from school.

Strengths or Deficits

The lessons our students take from the last year, and how we refer to it, will be framed by the way we speak about it, the words we use and most importantly our actions in the first few weeks of the new school year. We can either take a deficit approach and focus on what has been termed learning-loss, or we can take a strengths-based approach and appreciate and acknowledge what has been learned and gained.

A deficit approach would see us focusing on what didn’t happen. What classes were missed, which tests weren’t taken, what foundational skills have been bypassed. This isn’t to say that—as with every year—some learning won’t need to be revisited. But if we take a primarily deficit approach we focus on what wasn’t and ignore what was.

The alternative is to take a strengths-based approach where we acknowledge and respect the myriad skills, aptitudes and attitudes that have been developed and honed over the past year. Our students have experienced, tested and trialed self-efficacy, agency and decision-making. They have solved problems creatively to get access to Wi-Fi, quiet spaces to learn and hard-to-find information. They have collaborated with peers and expanded their networks of support. They have discovered more about how each of them learn and they are better set to use this understanding in the future.

The problem with our data-driven education system is that we don’t have a uniform set of metrics to evaluate, nor a concise list of skills and competencies that our students have mastered. What has been learned varies from group to group, location to location and from need to need. The pandemic and last year’s racial unrest, while impacting all of us, has hit communities and populations differently. Some have had to adjust and navigate basic health and accessibility issues. Others have been juggling the switch from in-person to virtual to hybrid, sometimes more than once.

New Paradigm and New Drivers

If the list of skills and competencies students are currently learning—self-efficacy, agency, collaboration, problem solving—sound familiar, that’s because these are the same set of competencies that are often listed as necessary heading into and through this century. Most lists of the 4 C’s of 21st century learning look like this:

  1. Creativity
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication

Add to that the growing movement towards agency, ownership and student voice from organizations including the OECD and WISE and it covers much of what many students have had to endure and learn.

To support this shift there is a call for a new set of drivers for the education system, one that can move us into this new paradigm. With that in mind, suddenly the gains and opportunities from the past year take on new meaning. Recently, education reform expert Michael Fullan developed what he calls the new right drivers that can propel education forward, while contrasting them with the drivers currently fueling education. Here’s a look at Fullan’s list.

The new wrong drivers The new right drivers
Academics Obsession Wellbeing and Learning
Machine Intelligence Social Intelligence
Austerity Equality Investments
Fragmentation Systemness

New Choices

At a minimum we must acknowledge that students made significant gains, and in unprecedented and unwelcome circumstances. Those who revert to the old paradigm will unfortunately quickly become irrelevant and their students unprepared for our future reality.

Those who embrace this uncertainty and applaud their students and schools for adapting over the past 12-18 months will be setting the stage for ongoing growth and learning that matches the world we are entering.

It’s time for a new new school year, but it is also time for a new paradigm for education. What will this entail? A new narrative? A new normal? A new set of drivers? Most likely all of this and more.

Let’s use this watershed moment to move our system away from a content-focused delivery-system and toward a system that grows each students’ ability to learn, adapt and own their learning. Let’s start our new year by adjusting to a new normal.