Here's the Real Learning Loss Caused By COVID

class discussion covid learning loss covid pbl learning loss student collaboration Oct 01, 2021

You may have seen this viral graphic floating around the internet lately, basically pointing out that students have not seen an entire “normal” school year in the past three years.

May be an image of text that says 'The last normal school year ...for students in... Grade 7 Grade 6 Grade 5 Grade 4 Grade 3 Grade 2 Grade 1 Kindergarten was was Grade Grade 3 Grade 2 Grade 1 Kindergarten never never never @weareteachers'

Essentially, my son was forced into distance learning in March of his kindergarten year, dealt with all that school was in first grade, and now is in second grade and still wearing a mask, and social distancing, and living by constantly changing protocols, quarantining, etc.- experiencing a new normal. 

It’s been a while since students experienced a normal time in school. This is a long time for kids to spend in limbo, to operate out of survival mode, and to experience daily disruption.

This kind of disruption is impactful.

That’s why I think that graphic went viral, because we’re feeling it. If you’re an adult, in a sense, the pandemic still feels new, like a crisis we’re trying to figure out. And yet, it also feels like forever. We’re getting used to the disturbance, living in stress and just expecting to be in survival mode. For younger students, it almost is their forever. This reality is heavy, and if you’re an educator, you’ve probably seen the result of this heaviness, this disruption, in your students lately. 

It’s not just academic “Learning Loss” that matters.

There’s certainly been an impact academically on many students. On average, k-12 students are 5 months behind on math and 4 months behind on reading. “Learning loss” is real and something to consider, but talk to most teachers and parents, and you will see on the ground level that this is not the biggest concern right now. The largest disruption of the last 3 school years is a social one. From isolation at home, to spread out lunchrooms, uneven schedules, canceled sports, divided recesses, etc., COVID is impacting social development and is potentially stunting student development. 

Just read the responses to the many teachers who responded to my posting of the graphic on my Facebook page. You will see example after example of teachers sharing how students are struggling to connect with one another in the classroom.

A lack of social interaction affects engagement.

I teach a hybrid college class, and for one of my classes I split my students into groups on Zoom to have discussions based on several prompts I gave them. For accountability, I asked that someone in their group record their responses and submit afterwards. 

For a little extra accountability, I hopped around to each Zoom room to listen in on discussions, and every single one of them was silent when I got there. Screens off and on mute. What I learned was that each group was splitting up the prompts and answering them individually, and then they’d combine them and turn that in for credit. I was a little shocked; these were relevant discussion questions. So I asked every group why they were doing it like this, the instructions were to discuss. Are you just being lazy? 

But the unanimous response I received was, “Discussing is just so uncomfortable.” 

I know that getting students to discuss is not a new problem that was introduced by the pandemic. I’m sure Plato faced some of these same problems with his students. But to see it with every single one of the groups feels different. This lack of social interaction is affecting engagement, and this will have a long-term impact if we don’t act. 

We need to shift the primary focus of school.

So what do we do? How do we help our students cope with the abnormality and social 'learning loss' of the last 3 school years? 

Well one, what if the primary emphasis of school right now is not hitting every single standard listed in the Common Core? What if teachers weren’t spending their time and energy trying to hit every content objective to decrease the academic deficit caused by Covid? Instead, what if the primary objective of school right now was addressing the most pressing needs of our students, the chief of which may be social connection. 

The classroom needs to be a place where students are working together and finding community, learning how to talk to others, build relationships, solve problems, experience healthy conflict, express creativity, and connect with others. Academics still belong, but what if they weren’t the center of our focus? The center of testing? The center of teacher evaluations? The center of stress and anxiety right now?

What if instead play was? Or collaboration? Or relationships? And we realize that when students are engaged in those areas, academic success usually follows. 

Let's keep this emphasis on socialization after the pandemic.

What if we keep this going after the pandemic? Because caring for the whole child and their social development is what students need now in the disruption, but it’s what they need the rest of the time as well. I know the idea of resetting school because of covid has become a little redundant, but what a waste it would be if there was no adaptation despite the opportunity. This moment we are in now can serve as a catalyst for change and growth.

So teachers, how can you orient your class and curriculum to meet your students' needs? Administrators, how can you give your teachers the trust and support to do so? And parents, if you’re reading this, how can you advocate and support this as well? Because here’s a reality: this disruption is hard, but it’s almost always disruption that leads to evolution, and I think we’d all agree that the education system could use a little evolution.

For tips on building social skills, class discussion, and student collaboration, check out my book, The Collaborative Classroom.

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