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Is “Learning Loss” a “Thing”?

July 16, 2021

I think we can all agree that the 2020-2021 school year has been a bit less typical than normal.  I think we can also agree that that first statement is a vast understatement of the reality of the pandemic!   Transitioning between in person to online learning back and forth over the past year and a half has left many parents and students, not to mention teachers, with a sort of educational whiplash. Some students have had to quarantine, as have many teachers, while in class lessons continued with physical distancing, masking, cohorting, and all sorts of other highly atypical approaches to learning. I think it is fantastic that we have been able to adapt, and I have much admiration for our teachers and our learners, not to mention parents through the pandemic. However, one question that I frequently receive as a psychologist is “I’m afraid my child is going to be behind academically.  What can I do to make sure they don’t experience learning loss?“

First of all, let me be clear that the idea of learning loss does have some degree of validity. Specifically, we have students who will have struggled with online learning, the focus on mental wellness has (rightfully) taken away from academic time, and the transitions between online and in-class learning have been somewhat random and difficult to adapt to on a day-to-day basis.

However, it is also clear that this has been a global pandemic so we have to be cautious about the entire concept of learning loss. Specifically, if you feel that your child has “fallen behind,“ who have they fallen behind from? For the most part, everyone has had challenges and difficulties through the pandemic restrictions, so loss is a relative term. 

The second thing that we need to consider is what degree of loss is acceptable. If we assume that learning loss does exist, and does have an impact on student performance, to what extent are we willing to also accept the fact that any loss may be mild and inconsequential. Like many things, my guess is that some people have had more negative effects resulting from the pandemic than others in relation to learning. So for some students, yes, there has been significant learning loss that needs to be attended to. For the vast majority, on the other hand, I would suggest that any learning loss that does exist is essentially inconsequential and because children and adolescents are excellent learners and highly adaptable for the most part, placing them in a structured intervention program over the summer would be counterproductive and actually potentially damaging in terms of their motivation to learn.
For the small number of students who have experienced significant learning loss, again it is important to consider the degree to which learning loss will have an impact on them in the long term. Obviously, there is no research to indicate what the long-term implications of significant learning loss resulting from the pandemic might be. But if we look at models based on absenteeism related to illness and the ensuing learning loss that can occur in those situations, the long-term impact is usually mediated overtime, so at the end of the day, there is little to no difference between those who have missed time at school and those who have not. The exception is for younger students who are learning the foundational components of reading, writing, and mathematics. In those situations, if you as a parent are concerned about learning loss, I would suggest the following:

  1. Encourage naturalistic learning where possible.  Placing students into intensive academic support programming over the summer is likely to be counterproductive. What is more intentional and more likely to provide better long-term results in terms not only of academic skill development, but also attitude towards learning, would be a more naturalistic approach. A naturalistic approach incorporates daily reading, for younger children, ideally with a parent reading books of interest;  for older students, finding highly engaging texts from the local library. Spending a summer doing math worksheets is no one‘s idea of fun, so finding engaging apps and online platforms to develop math skills may also be an effective approach.
  1.  Keeping things light and focussing on enhancing a positive relationship with your child, and keeping their academic performance in perspective would be ideal. Parents are cautioned to ensure that they do not create a situation in which the student is reluctant to engage in academic supports, because such behaviour will lead to a negative attitude towards learning when the school year restarts.
  1. If you feel a need to place your child in an academic support or enrichment program over the summer, do your research. Many organizations are in a position in which they can capitalize on parental anxiety about learning loss and will market learning programs for students based on fears around learning loss. These programs vary widely in terms of quality and outcomes. A general rule to follow is that if an organization or individual “guarantees“ results, ask questions about how they assess performance. Many private tutoring companies will use their own pre-test/post-test measures. Of course,the tutors are aware of the pre-test and pos-test content, so they can effectively “teach to the test,” so that it would appear that the student has shown significant growth when in fact, they have simply learned the content of the post-test.
  1. We all need breaks. As noted, this has been a highly challenging year with a lot of transitions, a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, but hopefully a lot of optimism as well. In any case, it is evident that mental wellness is a primary area that needs to be focussed on as we start to re-emerge from the pandemic restrictions. For many kids, it has been a very long time since they have had the opportunity to socialize in any “normal“ kind of way. They have been inside, on screens for over a year. This summer, it might be time to reconceptualize “learning“ as being based on play and socialization. Developmental and learning research strongly indicates that children learn, and their brains develop much more effectively, when they are socializing and playing. As such, they need downtime. They need time to engage with others, to be bored, to be creative, to be physically active, and to simply relax, which is no different than what we needed as adults.

I strongly believe that it is in the best interest of all students that they have time off this summer to relax and play. For adolescence, the opportunities to socialize, to engage in recreational sport, and so on are all critical factors in their learning and play into the need for recharging their batteries. It’s only fair that we afford children the same opportunities that we have as adults. As adults, we need our vacation time, and so do our children.  On a side note, while there are some great summer camp opportunities, kids need time for unstructured play.  Keep the camps to a reasonable level.  We do not want students returning to school in the Fall having been in different champs all summer.  Their brains will have been learning, sure, but they may not have had to to genuinely recharge.

So let’s not worry about learning loss, and let’s focus instead on reconceptualizing learning as not necessarily being solely academic in nature. Exploring, creating, socializing, being physically active; all of these engender curiosity and support a positive attitude towards learning.

Copyright Macdonald Psychology Group 2021

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