Are students really falling behind?

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some porttion of the poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale.

One of the most claming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul.

“You Were Made For This” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 

As if parents and teachers haven’t had enough to deal with during the past year, they can now worry about how much their children and their students have fallen behind while juggling remote, hybrid and in-person instruction.  It’s as if the folks sharing this “critical” information have been living on a different planet for the past year.  While kids and the adults in their lives have been busy juggling internet connectivity, learning how to “Zoom”, learning and unlearning frequently changing school schedules,  and the stresses of trying to protect one another from the scary “positive” COVID result, some presumably well-intended policy wonks have been working to protect the profits of the testing industry by lobbying aggressively for a repeat of the annual ritual of state assessments.  How else, they argue, will we be able to know just how much our kids haven’t learned? Subjecting kids who have been worried about the their own safety, the safety of their families and their friends, their college applications, their loss, for many,  of virtually all extra-curricular activities and interactions to the stress of meaningless test prep lessons and hours of testing would in most professions be termed as malpractice.

As regular followers of this blog know, a major focus of a number of posts has been the opportunity presented by the year-long disruption in traditional schooling to resist the call to “return to normal schooling” and to use the opportunity presented by the disruption of the “normal” to address long-standing shortcomings of our system of education.  You may also recall that I have had the opportunity to collaborate with a small team of educators from both the US and Canada in the exploration of options.  

One of team members (Cam Jones) collaborated with his Canadian colleagues to address the specific issue of “Learning loss”.  Yes, even the Canadians can’t avoid the reach of the testing industry and its policy supporters. Rather than subject you to another version of that message, I’m taking the opportunity to share an article (below) written by this small team. Let me introduce the folks with whom you’ll be spending the next few minutes.

Laurence De Meayer is a retired Superintendent of Education and a Professional Learning Advisor for the Ontario Principals Council, Cameron Jones is a Leader of Experiential Learning for the Ottowa-Carleton School District, Hazel Mason is a retired Superintendent of Education and a Community Director for the Modern Learners Community.

Are Students Really Falling Behind

When claims are made about children falling behind in school, we need to ask what it is they are falling behind in? Young people are accomplishing incredible things during the pandemic – many of which are self-directed and required deep personal learning. Learning they did not do in school.

The Pandemic has given all of us an opportunity to pause and think about the world we want moving forward. It is clear that some things need to change. Working and learning from home will become part of the new normal. 

Underpinning the fear that students are falling behind is the belief that traditional teaching methods can be effectively transferred to online formats.  Students, parents and teachers are finding that is not the case. Instead, the people doing the most work in this situation are teachers, and families are getting a glimpse at how out of step the current curriculum truly is.  Online classrooms experiencing the most success are those which have included students in the planning of the learning experiences. Topics are connected to current world issues and students are given voice and choice on how to demonstrate their learning. The inquiry process is central to pursuing essential and relevant questions.

Students have long discovered facts and information are available on demand, anytime, anywhere, with the devices that they carry in their pockets. If they don’t know something they google it and learn what they need to know. The absurdity of continuing with traditional pedagogical strategies based on a set curriculum has only been further accentuated for students, teachers and parents. Our children need to become informed problem solvers. The exponential growth of information has made the use of a static curriculum irrelevant. Students will learn “the basics” under the guidance of a teacher as they work to answer their questions – teaching them how to learn. 

 It is becoming widely acknowledged that traditional schooling is not developing the skills and dispositions that will set students up for personal and professional success in the context of modern societal and economic complexities.  The World Economic Forum, the OECD, Microsoft, C21, and many other corporate and academic think tanks have identified the need for an educational transformation that focuses less on rote learning and more on critical thinking and adaptability – skills that are more important for success in the future.  This requires a wholesale shift in curriculum, pedagogy, learning environments and assessment practices. Online learning can effectively facilitate this shift if teachers are empowered to step outside of the norm and do things differently

Deeper learning requires a more inquiry-based model driven by students’ interests and passions. With this approach, the teacher does not need to know all of the answers connected to the learning.  Teachers and students co-create learning objectives  and  teachers help the students to develop learning strategies and strengthen their inquiry (and related) skills.  Students assume much more responsibility and agency in the learning process.  One  benefit of this shift is a decrease in the workload of the teacher.  In the traditional model the teacher does most of the work and learning.   

Rediscovering an Essential Truth

What we learn in school began with curiosity and wonder, and yet schooling removes these elements and replaces them with a series of disconnected facts.  With the focus on the challenges and constraints of schooling in the era of COVID-19 overwhelmingly concerned with learning loss and learning gaps related to what is known, we have lost sight of an essential truth: learning is a natural development of individual experience. When children explore what conditions support human life on earth in pursuit of creating those same conditions in Space, they are asking essential questions that focus their learning, and they know it.  Asked if building a long term colony on the Moon perpetuates the human race or starts a new one, one high school Biology student responded, “Isn’t this question basically our entire course?”  The question that arises is, do children have the capacity for such an undertaking? Or is there something they need to know first? 

Beyond the Walls of School

What are 10-year-olds capable of doing?  Focussed on their social enterprise, one grade 4 class is “working towards hope” by selling masks to raise money in support of local food banks. The students are determined that their business model should include a carbon neutral impact on the earth. They discuss decisions they’ll make, including the cost-benefit of adding to their carbon footprint. A recent conversation in the class determined that a print job was unnecessary due to the cost of purchasing a carbon offset. Not only are these children illustrating 21st Century dispositions, they are learning math in a context absent from rote memorization and worksheets. Subjects become a tool with a purpose rather than a collection of disconnected skills and knowledge.  Students are learning math in the very ways it is used beyond the walls of school. 

Authentic Learning 

Authentic learning spotlights links to the world beyond school, and reveals “a more integrated picture of society” (as Hackett, Mant, and Orfod called for in the G&M in November). Learning  must be integrated and interdependent, reaching beyond the classroom, school and community.  So, when students collaborate to write a newspaper, and determine an audience that includes communities and schools beyond their own, around the globe, the purpose and skills of writing to communicate take on a different emphasis. 

Our Kids Can Thrive

The “generational catastrophe” of “learning loss” is being reported as a foregone conclusion. From a different perspective, with a broader definition of learning, children are thriving. Many of the challenges students experience as a result of schooling have very little to do with learning. Instead, in an effort to standardize education, and rank order children, we have relied on tools that tell us very little about the individual. We are focussed on statistics that obscure the learner in favour of averages.  The average has no place in the development of a human being. The danger of the average is in its use of predetermining ability and conflating it with capacity, having never engaged in a conversation with the child. This is not learning.  We are failing to ask essential questions while being distracted by shallow understandings. Our children deserve better.  Before we focus on what has been lost, we owe it to children around the globe to see all the learning that has happened despite the pandemic.

A Time Of Critical Import

We have reached a time of critical importance for improving the learning experiences of students and the methods to enhance it. Rather than focussing on learning-loss or gaps we need to reimagine schools that focus on learning for our children. As Mitch Resnick writes in his  book Lifelong Kindergarten (The MIT Press) “We want kids to experience the challenges and joys of turning their own ideas into projects.”  Whether in the creation of colonies on the moon, social enterprises aimed at solving injustices, or publications that seek readers around the globe, we have hardly begun to challenge the capacity of our children; there is no better time than now to challenge our assumptions about what our students are capable of. 

We have begun to take some important steps forward. Insights from some of the above mentioned organizations and academics have started to take root in classrooms, curriculum and policy.  The Ontario kindergarten curriculum and the revised K-12 curriculum in British Columbia are shining examples. Concern about online learning could be the long-awaited catalyst to creating a new, more effective, more humane educational system.  As has been argued widely by the likes of thinkers such as Pasi Sahlberg and William Doyle, Sugata Mitra, and Mitch Resnick, this quality of learning should be emphasized for children K – 12 and beyond. 

If the Words of our Canadian friends strike a responsive chord and you would like to learn more about the options being suggested by those not involved in profits associated with the “education industry”, I would highly recommend 

The changes we need: Education post COVID‐19, Yong Zhao, Journal of Educational Change 

https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-021-09417-3 

One thought on “Are students really falling behind?

  1. That is a very lovely post about authentic learning and curiosity and inquiry. A great antidote to the mass of stuff on learning loss.

    There is much work to do.

    Thank you for this!

    Like

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