The term “learning loss” has been applied in a variety of contexts and used to describe multiple circumstances over the past months. However, the only accurate application of the term is in reference to pre-pandemic academic learning that was not reviewed, reinforced, and practiced to keep it fresh and retrievable. Of course, the loss does not have to be permanent. Past learning can be rebuilt with attention, practice, and application. Unfortunately, the time and effort necessary to restore previous learning presents an opportunity cost for new learning. Consequently, learning loss is something we want to avoid.
Sadly, we may be at risk of unintentionally creating yet another cycle of important learning loss. The learning at risk occurred in the context of the challenges and opportunities students experienced when face-to-face instruction was disrupted, and learning shifted to hybrid and virtual environments.
Our students absorbed many important lessons about learning and life over the past months. Yet, in a quest to return to normal we may be neglecting to review, reinforce, and support students to practice and build on some of this crucial learning.
Consider that as students were asked to learn at home they figured out how to use technology for more than practice and reinforcement. Technology became a crucial support for connecting, discovering, and creating experiences and knitting them into learning. Technology shifted from a “nice to have” to a crucial learning tool. How are students experiencing technology in their learning now? Are we building on what students have learned, or have we retreated to more traditional instructional practices?
The pandemic learning environment challenged students to become more independent and practice self-discipline. No longer was behavior monitored minute by minute. Progress became a more important measure of learning than the amount of time spent doing in-class activities. Failure to focus and giving in to distractions no longer carried an immediate reminder from the teacher. How are we supporting students to practice learning independence now? How are we giving students opportunities and challenges to reinforce self-discipline habits and decision-making skills?
No longer was the classroom teacher the only source of instruction and learning support. In fact, students often had many teachers, including siblings, parents, peers, online resources, and others. Learning was supported by multiple sources and included varied perspectives. If one strategy or approach did not work, students learned to turn to others for additional ideas and other sources of experience. How are we supporting students to seek out and benefit from instruction beyond our own and learn from insights and experiences that are not presented via professionally prepared lessons?
Learning in virtual and hybrid environments reduced the separation between academic learning and life. Boundaries between formal learning time and the rest of the day often blurred. Some learners discovered that strategies on which they relied for out-of-school learning also were effective for academic learning. Figuring out when to separate formal learning and when to blend learning with other activities was an important lesson, potentially with lifelong implications. How are we supporting students to integrate academic learning and life now? What are we doing to help students find a healthy and sustainable balance between formal learning and other life activities?
Of course, living and learning during the pandemic taught the importance of connecting, supporting, and taking care of each other. The pandemic was experienced as a common challenge and invited a shared response to a shared threat. Competition often faded into the background with the realization that “we are all in this together.” Supporting each other was important for everyone’s well-being. Are we nurturing an environment of caring and support with our students? Are we coaching students to support, collaborate, and share as they are learning? How are we helping students to keep competition in perspective and respond to it in a healthy manner?
It is true that some aspects of academic learning may not have been regularly and robustly reinforced during the pandemic and were temporarily lost. However, with review, practice, and meaningful application most if not all of that learning can be recovered. The good news is that the same is true for the learning and life skills gained during the pandemic. We can review, reinforce, and build on these skills and avoid having them become lost learning. When we do, we not only communicate recognition and respect for their learning, we also build on skills that will serve our students for life.