Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Moments of Connection Amidst Conversations of “Learning Loss”

Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

In education, particularly post remote learning, it seems as if the talk of “learning loss” and catching students up is ubiquitous. This phrase produces a visceral reaction in me every time that I hear any iteration of it (which, unfortunately, is frequent). Like many scholars, Jal Mehta (2021) argues why this mentality upholds the status quo, rather than unearths more complex questions. I have written in previous pieces that I believe the question we should be asking is: What do we want our students to be able to do when they leave our systems?

Stuck in Survival Mode

Despite disagreements on whether students are behind, what we define as behind, and whose definition of “behind” we are using in these broad brush statements — much of our education system remains in survival mode. On top of starting a new school year after over a year of remote learning, teachers are also implementing new curricular initiatives and assessment tools. All of these new initiatives, of course, come with expectations. While we say that we want to focus on socio-emotional learning and engagement, every professional development session seems to emphasize assessment and data.

Coupled with this, there is a nationwide teacher shortage (Gecker, 2021) and finding substitutes is proving to be a daily challenge. This is compounded by challenges attracting and retaining teachers. While there are certainly a myriad of factors that contribute to these shortages, the impacts are felt most strongly at the local level. It is all hands on deck, and the system is stretched thin.

Teachers are trying to do just as much — if not more — while still in a global pandemic.

Focusing on What Matters

The language of “learning loss” and the urgency to get students back up to speed — however we define that — only seems to heighten anxieties and obscure conversations about systemic change. Instead, perhaps it is direction that we should focus on, and not speed. Rather than staying in recovery mode, I argue for creative, innovative, and empowering learning opportunities for students.

In fact, the powerful moments in classrooms, moments that have stayed with me over the past several weeks, are not at all related to acceleration or learning loss. They are moments of connection, of questioning, of critical thinking.

In one classroom, I saw students unpack various aspects of their identity, learn about living in a global community, and understand that they can powerfully impact their classroom. Through literature, students identified which texts represented their lived experience (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014) and which texts could teach them about the experiences of others. Connections to character analysis were seamless, in part because students were invested in this lesson and able to make cross-curricular ties. What followed was a rich discussion where students received the message that “your experience matters in this classroom.” No reading level or other ability signifier was mentioned.

Other teachers are inviting students to use their voices in a podcast, and to create collaborative texts for authentic audiences. Examples such as these are happening in the classrooms around our nation, but in many conversations about education, they are getting buried underneath the urgency to accelerate. Paradoxically, this urgency to accelerate seems to keep us stagnant, or at the very least, moving in place.

Anyone who has been involved in education in any capacity knows that building authenticity and relationships in classrooms is key to progress. There is time for content, but we cannot afford to put off our connections.

Technology to Build Connection

In our fast-moving digital world, technology is one way that we build connection. However, in our rush to return to pre-pandemic style teaching and fatigue over remote learning, there is simultaneous fear of too much “screen time” and a belief that the use of digital devices will impede connection, or even more so, will not promote the kind of progress that we so desperately want to see from students. Many hesitate to have students on computers at all. In fact, while the pandemic is far from over, we are back teaching in-person and the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. While this logic is understandable, questions arise when you dig beneath the surface.

The irony of this is that technology is an avenue for vastly rethinking our schools and the experiences that students might have within our schools, if it is used as a tool for creative and critical thought. If we are focused solely on making up for “learning loss” however, there is a danger that we will navigate toward limited technology, or rely solely on self-paced digital programs that narrowly define achievement.

The time spent on technology shouldn’t be the focus here. Rather than passively consuming technology, offer opportunities for students to use their voices, regardless of how “behind” they might be or how much urgency we feel to get them “up to speed” on skills. It’s about trying new things, opening spaces for creativity, and seeing risk as part of the journey instead of an awkward byproduct.

Seeing technology integration as an adventure rather than a set of tools that has to be perfected will liberate you and your students. Indeed, it is this vulnerability that invites our students to take risks and to challenge the status quo.

Creating original digital texts, building podcasts, searching for information and determining the credibility of sources should be open to all students, not a select few. This type of experience not only prepares students for the world outside of their K-12 education, but it is an authentic task and use for technology that inherently demands the ability to think critically, to form opinions, and to share information with the world around them. All students deserve these experiences regardless of how close they are to benchmark.

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Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Alyson Rumberger, Ed.D

Learner, teacher, author, scholar and passionate advocate of education.