The only “learning loss” is the loss of opportunity for transformational change.

by Keturah Proctor, Educator

If we are focused solely on “learning loss” and “academic deficits” then as a country, we have learned nothing at all from the past year. The concept of “learning loss” is being used to reflect the learning challenges students are experiencing as a result of virtual/hybrid learning configurations due to the impact of COVID-19.

It reflects a deficit lens, or a negative view when looking at student academic growth over the past year. Ultimately, using the term places the burden of the educational experience of the past year solely on the students to bear, especially underserved students and communities. But, focusing on achievement doesn’t take into account the inequities in opportunity that led to the disparities in the first place.

The traditional learning experience did not benefit or support the academic success of all students before the pandemic. “Learning loss” was present before COVID-19 and will continue to be present if the urgency to return back to normal persists.

As an educator with over 20 years experience, I can understand and relate to the challenges and obstacles that the past year presented. However, I can also recognize that students’ opportunity to succeed is directly impacted by institutional barriers such as racism and classism, that fuel the inequities that perpetuate the space for ‘learning loss’ to exist. A recent survey from advocacy group ParentsTogether found that 38% of students in the lowest income quartile were participating in online learning only once a week or less, compared with 3.7% of children from the highest income quartile. We cannot use societal barriers that have existed for more than 50 years to now blame students and their families for “learning loss.” Referring to “learning loss” should always sit at the source — the flawed system as a whole, not on the backs of our students.

We need to alter our thinking. Instead of saying, “students aren’t learning in this setting,” it makes more sense to say, “students have learned so much and have had to overcome so much in spite of the harsh realities of our country’s experience with COVID-19.”

Not only is there no “learning loss,” but in fact there is nothing but academic gains. Those gains can be seen in students’ perseverance, their increased independence, the ability to advocate for themselves, the development of technological skills, the fostering of creativity and time management, their improved speaking and listening skills, as well as an increased ability to engage and activate their executive functioning. That doesn’t reflect “learning loss,” it reflects the strength of our students and their willingness to strive even when faced with insurmountable obstacles.

In my classroom, I saw students more readily engaged when they were immersed in learning that had a real life connection and where they were able to see themselves reflected in the content. I had students who were signing on to class before the start time and not wanting to leave when class was over. They knew in that moment they were being centered as the experts and that they were going to have an experience that was predicated on relationship and social emotional wellness first rather than that of content. Their voices, their knowledge, their experiences, and their expertise were all being honored, centered and valued as learning and that valued as success.

This last year has shown us that educational structures and practices such as learning standards, instructional practices and assessments are fragile at best. Hinging student achievement solely using these paradigms as a marker for success is only doubling-down on maintaining normalcy when normalcy is the problem.

We have the unique opportunity to reshape what we thought was learning into something that can be transformational and promote real change by acknowledging:

  • Relationships matter more than rigor and standards. If you want your students to truly succeed, then show them that you are truly invested in who they are as a person. Cultivate authentic relationships first.
  • Students are their own experts. They come to us whole and complete. Use their knowledge, lived experiences and expertise to have them share in the instructional process.
  • Learning cannot be and should not be traditional if it is to be transformational.
  • Success is more than standards. Success is more than benchmarks. Student engagement and authentic learning where students experience joy is success. Reevaluate your metrics for success.
  • Families are vital in ensuring student success. Welcome families into the work we are doing with students. Foster and nurture partnership with families.
  • Challenge structures to move past what was and work to create what is yet to be. Welcome a new way of thinking, of doing.

Valuing what has been gained over what has been lost is the key to transformation. Returning to normal does not reflect equity and social justice, does not value or center students of historically marginalized communities. A return back to normal only seeks to maintain the status quo, not to grow, transform or liberate.

The only “learning loss” is the loss of opportunity for transformational change. We must look inward and admit that the practices we value in the system of education are the issue. Students haven’t lost anything, the system is lost and needs to be changed to be responsive and embrace learners no matter the context.

Keturah Proctor has just completed her 20th year in education in the Elmsford Union Free School District.

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