A disheartening number of media reports, political assessments, and even some educational leaders use the label “learning loss” to describe the impact of conditions present during the pandemic. Taken at face value, learning loss implies that widespread student learning has regressed. Yet, we know that the vast majority of students have continued to make progress over the past year. Of course, the progress has not always been what is expected in light of the pace of learning these students have demonstrated in the past or compared to what is envisioned in standard face-to-face curriculum.
The fact is that learning loss is generally confined to a relatively small number of students who failed to be present in school, remote or in-person, over the past year. They received little if any instruction and were able to realize little to no new learning. Long periods of absence from learning environments have likely left these students with some level of learning loss because the learning they gained previously was not used or reinforced.
These are tragic circumstances. We need to do everything within our power to locate and reengage these students. However, it is a mistake to describe the state of learning or plan recovery strategies for most students based on the situation in which a minority of students find themselves.
In reality, many students have struggled with remote, hybrid, and in-person learning as a result of disruptions and distractions that competed for their attention during the pandemic. However, they have continued to make progress. There are elements and aspects of their learning that have not developed as quickly or completely as expected. These students need support to fill in areas where their learning has been lagging in the past months. They do not need to be retaught much of what they knew prior to the pandemic. They also do not need to spend significant time and energy on concepts and skills they were able to learn despite the situational challenges they faced. These students are more likely to need targeted intervention to bring them back to a place and pace where they can find success going forward.
Still another group of students has been able to keep their learning on pace, or maybe even accelerated, despite the disruptions and uncertainty surrounding their learning environment. Remarkably, many of these students experienced learning beyond the curriculum and explicit instruction. They may well have gained latent learning that has gone unnoticed and unrecognized. They have gained skills that can propel them forward. They have developed interests and areas of expertise that can be nurtured to even higher levels. These students also warrant attention and support to continue to move their learning forward and expand their learning horizons in the coming months.
Students in all three groups deserve attention and recognition of their learning needs and progress. However, they do not need the same support. In fact, within each of the loss, lagging, and latent learning groups, students will need attention that responds to their specific needs and is tailored to their readiness to learn.
We may not be able to extinguish popular, yet inaccurate, use of the term “learning loss” to describe the impact of the pandemic on students over the past year. Yet, we can be more accurate and specific in our language and in the strategies we develop and employ in the coming months to support the learning of all of our students.