Recent data on slowed learning growth and increased percentages of failures during the pandemic has schools across the country searching for ways to increase time. The theory of action is that if students have more time to receive instruction, they can make up learning growth and get back on track.
At first glance, this theory seems to make sense. After all, learning takes time, so more time must be the answer. However, an experiment tried by Washington D.C. schools presents a cautionary example of why such an approach may fall short.
A few years ago, D.C. Public Schools added twenty days to the school calendar on 13 of its lowest performing campuses. The increase meant that over the course of time these students spent in school up until eighth grade, they would add the equivalent of an additional year. The idea was simple. They expected that students in these struggling schools would benefit from having more time to learn. Test scores would improve, and the schools would become more successful. After three years the school district collected performance data for each school and discovered there was little evidence of any academic improvement. Attendance rates remained low, and reports of teacher burnout grew (Stein, 2019).
The fundamental flaw in the theory of action was assuming that just adding time would result in more learning. We cannot assume that doing more of what is not already working will somehow make it work better.
There was no evidence that the students involved were incapable of learning. Nor was there evidence that the teachers were incapable of or not committed to teaching. The problem was not the people.
This is not an argument that time doesn’t matter. However, adding time without changing instructional strategies and learner experiences offers little promise of improvement. As we think about efforts and initiatives to help students get back on track, we would do well to ask how the time that is available can be used to address the reasons for slippage in the pace of learning. We need to focus on how we might engage students in ways that lead to acceleration and recovery. Here are some ideas to consider.
We can start by reestablishing and reinforcing our relationships with students. This year has been one of isolation and loneliness for many students. Try as we might, we have not always been able to maintain strong, positive, influential relationships with many of our students, nor have they always been able to maintain relationships with each other. Now is a good time to refocus on relationships.
We can design learning experiences and opportunities that learners find attractive and engaging. Most educators and students are exhausted, especially with the often awkward and inefficient teaching and learning context we have experienced. What students find interesting and worth doing can be a good place to begin. Community-based experiences, gamification of content, and project and problem-based activities can offer the connections students find worthwhile, while also learning academic content.
In areas of learning where students need to fill skill and knowledge gaps, we can focus on essentials. We can design experiences that are focused and efficient while looking for hooks and pulls to engage students. Resorting to instructional strategies and structures that did not work the first time hold little promise of producing different outcomes now.
As much as practical, we can cluster students with classmates who are friends and acquaintances they may have missed if they spent the past year in remote instruction. Recreating familiar learning groups and clusters can reduce awkwardness and increase social support. We can also employ social learning strategies such as having students work in pairs, groups, and teams as they learn.
Of course, we need to begin learning and instructional activities in response to learner readiness. We do little to stimulate and build learning confidence and skills when we ask students to learn what they are not ready to learn or lack adequate background knowledge and skills in to be successful.
Stein, P. (2019, February 21) District eliminates extended school year, invests more in classroom technology. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/district-eliminates-extended-school-year-invests-more-in-classroom-technology/2019/02/21/e9478500-3484-11e9-a400-e481bf264fdc_story.html