Can we stop telling kids how little they are learning?

This post takes a very different, unusual look at that dynamic. It was written by Rachael Gabriel, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut. She has written or edited five books for literacy teachers, leaders and education researchers, as well as numerous articles, and teaches courses for educators and doctoral students pursuing specialization in literacy.

By Rachael Gabriel

Since schools shut down, students have been called the “hobbled” generation and the “covid class.” They have been told they have or will experience covid-related slides, losses, gaps and other deficiencies that are “disastrous.” They have been told that they are frying their brains by using phones, tablets and other devices to stay connected to friends, culture and a sense of normalcy, and that they are learning less than they should or close to nothing at all.

They should be told the opposite.

When these students begin the 2020-2021 school year, we should welcome them with wonder and assume they have learned immeasurable and previously unknowable things. We should assume they have been tested, stretched and challenged in new ways. We should imagine that even the youngest have been through a refining fire and have emerged with some kind of hard-won wisdom we may not yet see.

Students are learning how to reset the rhythms and structures of their days. They are learning different patterns and modes of communication. They may be taking on different roles in their homes and learning how to complete new tasks, engage in new games and develop or sustain new and different activities.

Some are learning from the outdoor world on walks that go slower and last longer than before. Others are watching nature change day-by-day out their window, in their gardens, and along trails and bodies of water. Some are spending more time in their imaginations because it’s the only place to go, but this is not unimportant work.

Students cannot help but learn about themselves, others and the world around them in this time when solitude has steadily increased alongside disconnection and uncertainty. Even those who are too young to verbalize their understandings understand their world has changed, and are changing right along with it.

If we use words such as “slide,” “loss,” “waste,” “pause,” “gap” and “cliff” to describe their learning, literacy and achievement, what will they conclude about their own intelligence, potential and ability to learn independently?

If we use words such as “welcome” and “wonder,” and if we acknowledge and appreciate the learning they must have done, how will they orient to new learning challenges?

University of California at Berkeley education researcher Kris Gutierrez has coined the term “re-mediation” — as opposed to the standard “remediation” — to signify the need to rethink how educators approach helping students seen to be behind academically.

Student learning is affected by place, context, cultural experiences — such as living through covid-19 — language and identity. This is a time to “re-mediate” for all students and approach each one as a “corona kid”: a special status that defies grade-level boundaries. We must acknowledge that all students, without exception, will return to school buildings having learned something important, and carrying enormous potential to continue learning.

If not, the recent hand-wringing about “learning loss” and “covid slide” will reinforce existing inequities by subjecting some students to impoverished forms of instruction and review under the banner of “remediation” (no hyphen involved) while others receive enrichment designed to engage, inspire and empower them.

Some students will be told they need to “accelerate” and “cover content” to be on “grade level.” But others will be busy setting their own goals, engaging in shared inquiry and learning at their own pace with the confidence that their learning is valued and valuable to the adults around them.

Support and enrichment should not be an either/or scenario, but the history of education in the United States suggests that we segregate based on presumed competence and then increase perceived differences by providing differential treatment.

We cannot have a warm welcome and robust curriculum only for those students who had the means to easily participate in all forms of distance learning and whose families traditionally provide what is understood as summer enrichment (e.g., travel, camp, tutors, etc.). We cannot assume those who could not be reached via distance learning, those who disengaged, and even many who dutifully slogged through the transition and long haul of emergency online learning this spring have lost significant ground, forgotten skills and failed to cover content.

We often rationalize alarm about “learning loss” by pointing to already dismal standardized test scores and implying that students must attend school in order to achieve and test well. However, we have evidence that, far too often, scores and achievement have little to do with what students learn in school.

Students increase scores on standardized tests by engaging in out-of-school tutoring and test preparation so often that these have blossomed into multibilliondollar industries. Peddling fear about the loss of school hours creating a gap between expected and actual learning is a great way to prop up these industries while simultaneously setting public schools up for failure.

Meanwhile, parent education and socioeconomic status are consistently predictive of student test scores, and students who participate in summer reading programs consistently outperform those who go to mandatory summer school. This year, it will be no different, but that does not mean those who underperform on tests have not learned.

School is not the only source of curriculum and content knowledge, and attendance is not the only way to increase achievement. However, school is sometimes a vital source of nutrition and therapeutic services that increase quality of life for students and their families. Those who have lost access to such services are owed a profound debt by the society as a whole. They have made an enormous sacrifice by sheltering in place and making do with often inadequate remote supports. They will continue to live in a world where their vital services are interrupted, diminished and delayed rather than guaranteed. On some level, even the youngest and most challenged know this.

If nothing else, students have learned from our responses to the crisis, our interactions with them during the crisis, and the way we have talked about returning to school. They have also learned from things we have and will say about them. Therefore, we need not siphon public dollars into the hands of testing, tutoring and textbook industries but instead find new ways to engage a generation of learners like no other.

We can use this disruption in business as usual to disrupt the stratification of learning opportunities in school settings. It is an opportunity to bridge the gap between learning opportunities offered to those we assume are gifted, talented, creative, geniuses and those we assume are average, grade-level, bubble kids — or worse, low-level, below-grade level, behind, delayed, disabled. Those who slide, lose, plateau and fall rather than climb, rise and soar.

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