Lack of learning progress appears to be a near universal concern among administrators and teachers as we enter the final quarter of the school year. Disruptions, distractions, and disinterest are blamed for lower grades, increased course failures, and other indicators of diminished academic success. Attention is now shifting to how to catch students up and counter learning loss.
Educators across the nation are hurriedly designing summer classes, bootcamps, academies, and other summer instructional activities to counter what they see as learning deficits. However, one thing is clear: Doing more of what hasn’t worked, or not worked well enough in the past, will not result in better outcomes now. The truth is that traditional summer school structures and approaches have generally not been effective at improving academic outcomes. In fact, world-renowned researcher John Hattie has documented traditional summer learning experiences as among the few educational practices that may actually counter learning progress.
In light of the urgency to make a difference for students and the challenges associated with making meaningful learning progress with students who have fallen behind, where can we turn to find useful tools to guide our design of learning experiences for the coming summer? Among the most powerful design elements reside in the assumptions we make about learners and learning. If we design and plan based on powerful, learning-supportive assumptions, we are far more likely to create experiences for students what will meet their learning needs and accelerate their learning progress. Here are four key assumptions on which the design process can rest.
Assumption #1: Learning starts where the learner is. The best place to start is with what learners know rather than what they don’t know. For the most part, new concepts, skills, and knowledge will be connected to and build on what students already know, regardless of whether they learned it in school. We need to take the broadest view possible when we explore what students already know. Administering a standardized test alone is unlikely to provide all the information needed. When we confine our search to narrow academic content and skills, we are likely to miss some of the most important insights, skills, and knowledge students already possess, but may be embedded in non-academic contexts. Understanding a student’s life outside of school can provide useful hints and starting points to surface prior knowledge and stimulate connections that otherwise may be overlooked. This observation is even more crucial for students who have spent a good portion of the past year outside of traditional classrooms.
Assumption #2: Relevant, meaningful learning is most effective. Most important learning in the lives of students is driven by purpose. When instruction connects to students’ experiences, goals, and interests, they are most likely to learn. Understanding what is important, interesting, stimulating, and even provoking for learners can be a starting point for connecting to what they see as relevant and tapping what may be meaningful. The key is to manipulate what is to be learned rather than manipulating the learner. For example, gamifying certain content and skills can make them more attractive and position students to make learning them a goal they willingly choose and ardently pursue.
Assumption #3: Learning can be stimulated in multiple ways. Designing summer learning experiences based on the assumption that instruction alone will be adequate is not likely to be successful. Engage students in activities that generate curiosity, stimulate imagination, and support exploration. Consider giving students access to interesting text that they can and want to read. Create activities in which students will want to participate that also develop intended skills. Direct instruction can and should be a part of the mix, but if we depend too heavily on explicit instruction and ignore other learning stimulators and drivers, we can expect learning to slow, retention to diminish, and success to be small.
Assumption #4: Students are most likely to succeed when we believe in their ability. When we believe in the probability of success, we provide more targeted and supportive feedback, try more options, offer more authentic encouragement, and focus more on strengths than deficiencies. Success is expected and communicated. We are more likely to see mistakes and missteps as evidence of learning acquisition than as proof that success is not likely. Interestingly, some of the most powerful messages we send to students about our belief in the probability of their success is not communicated via our words. They are embedded in our non-verbal behaviors. Every sigh, every glance, and every shrug communicates what we believe about whether a student is going to succeed. Trying to fake it is not a good strategy.
For many students, the learning they experience this summer will likely be determinative of their success in the coming year. We need to do all that we can to get it right. Starting with the right assumptions and designing experiences that place the learner and learning at the center is the best approach to ensure our students experience the success we want for them.