Let’s not think in terms of learning loss – let’s focus on student gains


As we prepare for another school year, we in education have a choice to make about what we will enjoy in the future. The past year has been a year of losses, of course, but it has also been a year of gains. And what we decide to focus on will go a long way in determining how we and our students approach another unprecedented school year.

First, it can be helpful to reframe the recent past. Is this a period marked by the absence of school, or rather a period of transition where we have begun the difficult process of transforming what could be the school of tomorrow? Was it a year and a half framed by what is called a ‘learning loss’ or will it be seen as a time when we have made gains in areas that are desperately needed but often overlooked or separated from the focus? program and benchmarks we typically used to measure progress.

The answers to these questions are hard to find. Sometimes they completely change their mind. But they are necessary if we are to truly re-prioritize what students should get out of school.

Strengths or deficits

The lessons our students learn from last year, and how we refer to them, will be framed by the way we talk about them, the words we use and most importantly our actions during the first weeks of the new school year. . We can either take a deficit approach and focus on what has been called learning loss, or we can take a strengths-based approach and appreciate and recognize what has been learned and acquired.

A deficit approach would see us focus on what did not happen. What courses were missed, what tests were not taken, what foundational skills were skipped. This does not mean that, like every year, some learning will not need to be revisited. But if we take a primarily deficit approach, we focus on what was not and ignore what was.

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

The problem with our data-driven education system is that we do not have a uniform set of metrics to assess, 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 racial unrest of the past year, while affecting us all, has affected communities and populations differently. Some have had to adapt and deal with basic health and accessibility issues. Others have juggled the in-person switch to virtual and hybrid, sometimes more than once.

New paradigm and new pilots

If the list of skills and competencies that students are currently learning (self-efficacy, agency, collaboration, problem-solving) sound familiar, it is because they are the same set of skills that are often listed as necessary at dawn and during this century. Most of the 4 Cs of 21st century learning lists look like this:

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

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

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

The new bad pilots New good drivers
Obsession with academics Well-being and learning
Artificial intelligence Social intelligence
Austerity Investments for equality
Fragmentation Systemic

New choices

At a minimum, we must recognize that the students have made significant gains, and under unprecedented and undesirable circumstances. Those who revert to the old paradigm will unfortunately quickly become irrelevant and their students will not be prepared for our future reality.

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

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

Let us use this decisive moment to move our system away from a content-driven delivery system and towards one that increases the capacity of each student to learn, adapt and take ownership of their learning. Let’s start our new year by adjusting to a new normal.

Ed. Note: A free webinar on this topic featuring Michael Fullan, New Beginnings – New Normal, New Paradigm, New Drivers, will take place on September 9.


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