What is Lost Learning? Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Obsess Over It

What is Lost Learning? Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Obsess Over It

When the pandemic hit, everyone was sent home from school with the expectation to continue on with the curriculum. With little notice or support, educators across the world pivoted their lessons and adopted new technologies to ensure students continued to learn and receive whatever social-emotional support educators could provide remotely.

Now, as we look at this academic year, with vaccine rollouts helping to get everyone back into the classrooms, there is another widespread concern that everyone – the media, the unions, the government – seems to be talking about: lost learning.

What is ‘Lost Learning’?

The term ‘lost learning’ refers to the possible loss of literacy and numeracy skills when students are out of a formal classroom setting for lengthy periods of time. In the past, the term was used in relation to summer holidays, and the idea that when students take a month away from school-based learning, they’re further behind in September than they were the previous May or June.

With many students spending the entirety of 2020 (and portions of 2021) outside of the classroom, the concept of learning loss has become a hot topic and is putting pressure on education leaders and the government to rectify the situation. But, with everything that students have been through since March 2020, has learning really been lost?

There is no question that hybrid or fully remote learning did not work for all students and there’s no question that the pandemic shone a spotlight on the socioeconomic divide among students. From a lack of access to devices and internet connection, to a lack of child supervision when guardians had to work outside the home, to the spike in mental health issues, the pandemic was fraught with hurdles that parents and educators had to jump, and sometimes trip, over to keep kids learning and supported.

But, educators rolled up their sleeves and worked long, difficult days to keep the curriculum on track. Students adapted and persevered through school while dealing with the various at-home difficulties of the pandemic. So, is it fair to be talking about learning loss when educators and students have been through so much?

The Impact of Labelling a Generation of Students

While it is certainly true that the pandemic has impacted education, probably in more ways than we can measure at this early stage, it is also true that the act of experiencing the pandemic has produced learning opportunities.

In an article for TES entitled Is it helpful to talk about ‘lost learning’?, Christian Pountain, head of RE and director of spirituality at St Christopher’s CE High School in Lancashire, had this to say about lost learning, “arguably, the pandemic has created some of the best learning opportunities in living memory: certainly, the much-talked-about capacity it has provided for us all to slow down and notice things.”

He goes on to say: “Another word I’ve heard a lot recently is “pivot”. Covid-19 has taught us how to do this effectively: to become agile and responsive to situations as they arise. To tap into the human spirit and find a way to become an overcomer.”

Research has also demonstrated a direct connection between a student’s mindset and their academic success. The rhetoric around lost learning could do more damage to students’ academic confidence and achievement than the actual months of learning loss.

Instead of focusing mainly on academic achievement and dividing students based on exam results, Divya Jindal-Snape, professor of education, inclusion and life transitions at the University of Dundee suggests that schools should start by prioritising the social and emotional needs of students. She says: “Even if we can control the virus and pandemic, the psychological and emotional impacts will last for a long period, including those related to mass bereavements, change in family dynamics and lack of opportunities to socialise and play.”

Help Students Feel More Confident in their Back-to-School Experience

Rebuilding relationships with students will be very important as the year progresses. Ensuring that every student has an adult in the building that cares about them may sound like a tall task, but these relationships are vital for student success especially after the last year. In their paper on the science of learning and development, researchers and educators Pamela Cantor, MD, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Karen Pittman found that “The presence and quality of our relationships may have more impact on learning and development than any other factor.”

Following on from the summer holidays, there are inevitably different learning gaps and personal struggles within each class of students. Consider providing students with a “mindset reset” by teaching them about a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. Knowing that they have the ability to strengthen their mind – like they would strengthen a muscle – teaches them their achievements are not based on a fixed level of intelligence, but that it’s all about the effort they put in.

If you’re interested in learning about how Carol Dweck coined these mindset terms from her years of studying children’s responses to challenging situations, check out her TedTalk here.

For years to come, educational leadership and government will continue to quantify and discuss the learning setbacks of the pandemic. But, regardless of how schools decide to talk about learning loss, what educators were able to pull off over the last few years is pretty amazing.