The availability of ESSER funds has presented new opportunities for administrators and educators to spend money on new initiatives such as adding time, purchasing new technology, and investing in other tools. The availability of new funds presents a crucial opportunity to improve learning outcomes. Yet, research and history point to the likelihood of disappointing results, if the bet is that expenditures for time, technology, and tools alone will improve student achievement to a level that “catches students up” academically.
The research of Hattie, Marzano, Petty, and others points to an important and inescapable conclusion: Unless we change the learning experience and shift the relationship students have with learning, we cannot expect to see changes in learning outcomes. A longer school year by itself tends not to work because students who are not engaged and finding success are not helped by increased exposure to the same experience. Technology that is used to shift traditional instructional practices from paper to digital without changing the fundamental learning experience holds little hope to improve learning. And new textbooks and related tools inserted in traditional lessons and class routines hold little potential to transform learning experiences.
What really influences learning outcomes is more fundamental and depends less on structures and resources than on learning relationships and experiences. This statement is not to imply that structures and resources do not matter. They can offer expanded and enhanced opportunities, but they have not been shown by themselves to be strong drivers of learning.
So, what are effective drivers of learning we can employ to make ESSER investments pay off? Here are five of the most powerful learning support strategies with a strong base of research and experiential support.
First, shift the experience of students from being passive listeners and responders to adult talk and direction to becoming active participants in their learning with adult guidance, coaching, and encouragement.
Second, encourage students to invest in their learning by providing frequent, authentic choices about what and how they will learn. Provide support to them to set goals for their learning rather than providing students with goals set on their behalf.
Third, focus on the purpose and benefits of learning rather than treating the experience as a compliance activity in service of vague, far into the future benefits. Purpose is the strongest driver of learning in life. We may as well leverage it.
Fourth, invite students to co-monitor their progress rather than expecting them to consistently default to the judgment of adults. Seeing progress can be a great encourager of hope for success and builder of confidence and motivation.
Fifth, focus attention on building learning skills over superficial and temporal information and content. Development of skills directly benefits the learner, while information and content is often seen by students as serving the agenda of adults. Further, it is learning skills that will prepare students for life success, not simple recall of names, dates, and events. Academic content needs to be the context for learning skills, not the opposite.
To be clear, this argument is not against providing time, technology, and tools for learning that are rich, varied, and accessible. Rather, it is a reminder that learners and their learning experiences are what drives improved learning outcomes. We need to advocate for and commit to resources and structures to assist learning, but we must be careful not to confuse them with what matters most.