If you’ve heard the term “learning loss” once during the pandemic, you’ve heard it a thousand times. Stuck at home with exhausted parents trying to supplement Zoom classes while juggling their day jobs, dealing with spotty Wi-fi, or quarantined with no Internet access at all, American kids are falling off the academic wagon and being left in the dust. Or so the headlines would have you believe.
But step inside a classroom, and the story gets a whole lot more complicated.
Certainly, the pandemic has affected American education and exacerbated inequities already present in the system, compounding racial and socioeconomic disparities. Most parents and teachers alike want kids in the classroom full-time for face-to-face education. But educators pushing back on the learning loss narrative say it’s a false flag that prevents us from seeing what has been gained in the past year and a half.
Learning loss … or learning gain?
“Learning loss gives the implication that students are doing nothing, that they aren’t learning new skills or to adapt,” says Nicholas Ferroni, a teacher from New Jersey and vocal educator on Twitter. “But when we lose something, we gain something else.”
Ferroni tells Teach Starter he’s adamant that kids will be better served in the classroom in the long run — and his job would be a whole lot easier if they were there. Still, teaching virtually has forced both Ferroni as an educator and his students to approach problems from new angles, and he’s seen students developing the ability to apply information better during the pandemic rather than simply memorizing. They’ve been able to use new tools too, and become more creative as projects have become video-based with more student opinion.
Just as the job world has evolved on a technical level, so too have students evolved in the pandemic, Ferroni says. To focus solely on learning loss over learning gains would be a mistake, he says, and he’s not alone.
Joe Truss is a middle school principal and racial equity consultant in education. As the “learning loss” narrative gained steam, the Californian educator said he noticed it wasn’t being heard from parents of color. Instead, the narrative seemed to be pushed by people who were in a rush to go back to the way things were before, Truss says.
But Truss says the pandemic gave educators the chance to do what educator reformer Bettina Love calls “freedom dreaming.” “It forced us to do some reimagining,” he says. “It’s so hard when you’re in the box, you’re not going to test. But the pandemic let us have these beautiful conversations that we never even realized we could have.”
With everything off the table, everything was suddenly on the table, Truss says, giving educators a chance to simply do what was necessary to educate children instead of doing what has been done for decades — right or not.
How the pandemic has changed education
That’s meant districts have built better parent-teacher relationships with schools across the US, creating “parent universities” to get parents up to speed and fully integrated with their children’s education, increased focus on student mental health, and refocused spending to arm kids with technology access they’ve needed all along. More districts are considering new staffing models, too, increasing support staff in recognition of the evolution that has occurred in a teacher’s job description — from student counselor to IT expert.
And when we asked the Teach Starter community on Instagram to share some of the many things they’ve gained this year, they had plenty to say!
“I am way more tech-savvy and adaptable than I knew. Also, an expert at managing time during a virtual school day.” — @misstexas_teachingadventure
“I learned to be more brave, show up…and remember that I’m still a student too…” — @mesb88
“I’ve learned how to give myself the grace I give to my students. It’s been rough, but we are making it!” — @unsinkableteacher
“Even when they don’t have motivation and they fail your class, they still need your attention, love, and respect. You have to remind them that failure is a chance to start over.” — @stewarthesciencekid
Now, the question Truss, Ferroni, and many other educators are asking is, “What next?” Will we go back to the way things were before, or will there be a learning loss suffered by the system, as “getting back to normal” erases whatever gains might have been realized?