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Approaches to Learning Loss: Celebrate Gains, Restore Relationships, and Personalize Recovery

By Dr. Shawn Smith, Chief Innovation Officer at McGraw Hill School

To understand the past year only in relation to its losses provides a far too limited view of students’ experiences. We know that a great deal of unexpected learning happened outside of the classroom: some students accelerated in self-paced learning environments, others thrived in flexible routines or discovered newfound confidence to participate in digital class meetings. All students — as well as their teachers — showed incredible creativity, adaptability, and resilience.

Still, losses were abundant. Instruction was interrupted to varying degrees — and for many students, the academic setbacks remain looming obstacles to overcome. For students with limited access to resources or connectivity, these setbacks are even greater. Historically underserved student populations are more likely to be severely impacted by COVID-19’s effects on schooling, and existing equity gaps may widen [1].

In addition to academic losses are the social and emotional issues as a result of the pandemic — students have been disconnected from their schools, may feel isolated, and some lack the structure, safety, and community provided by their teachers. Students who have lost family members or friends to the pandemic have experienced these social and emotional challenges alongside their peers in addition to grief. All post-pandemic learning will undoubtedly be shaped by this trauma.

When we think about the scale of these losses, it can be overwhelming. However, while every learning community is unique, I do believe that there are some universal practices we can rely on to carry students and teachers through post-COVID-19 recovery. Here are a few that I’m eager to see evolve over the summer and into the next school year:

Restore School Communities and Relationships

Like all of us in a post-COVID-19 world, teachers and students feel the urgency to restore in-person relationships within their communities. These relationships — between students and teachers, between principals and staff, and so on — have by no means been lost over the past year. Teachers have developed incredible ways to keep in contact with students and maintain connections. But as we have opportunities for increased togetherness, restoring a sense of community within school buildings will be critical work for teachers, principals, and even district leaders. In fact, restoring these relationships may be fundamental to addressing COVID-19’s impact to students’ mental health and working to recover socially and emotionally from the pandemic [2].

Personalize Instruction to Close Gaps

While caring for social and emotional needs is critical, students also need us to quickly and efficiently address gaps in academic learning sustained during the past year. These gaps are not universal among student populations. Many factors — from connectivity, engagement, personal experiences, and individual strengths — influence the specific instructional areas where a student needs support in recovering from COVID-19 learning loss.

Personalized learning has been evolving in classrooms and among EdTech developers for some time. Now, it may be more critical than ever. Personalized learning places value on students’ individual needs as well as agency, allowing us to arm students with the content knowledge and skills they need to progress, while maintaining the voice and choice that contributed to their resilience and creativity during remote learning.

Adaptive learning technologies that identify student learning gaps and respond with instruction tailored to individual needs will be particularly effective tools this summer and beyond. At McGraw Hill, we developed our new personalized learning solution Rise in alignment with NWEA’s COVID-19 Slide research. Rise leverages adaptive technology to identify gaps and create a unique learning sequence and pace for each student. Rise is curated from proven content and is uniquely designed to ensure that students aren’t revisiting lessons they’ve covered in other programs. Teacher assignments can focus on filling individualized students’ gaps while also reinforcing mastery with students who are performing at grade level.

Adaptive technologies may also aid educators in promoting equity — Rise also has a component of offline access, to accommodate students with limited connectivity. Students can download their Rise assignments while connected, making learning available offline. Once their mobile devices are connected again, assignments and progress save across all devices and their scores sync back to the teacher.

With time, I believe that education technology like Rise will give teachers additional time to focus on social and emotional gaps and build those critical relationships with students that can truly only be fostered by the intuition and compassion of a skilled educator.

Leverage Connections to Home and Local Partnerships

To support both academic and social and emotional learning, many districts are reflecting on the role that students’ families and local communities played during the pandemic. Parents were given an increased proximity to their children’s learning journeys and served as close partners with educators in making remote learning work. This rapid and unexpected shift in roles certainly made clear the need for a strong connection between home and school, and I expect that we will see district leaders creatively engaging families and leveraging COVID-19-era methods long after the pandemic has passed. In a similar vein, COVID-19 may have also elevated the role that students’ local communities play in learning, and the value of district — community partnerships, such as those that expand access to internet connectivity [3].

Embrace Flexible Schedules for Students and Teachers

Just as school in the time of COVID-19 taught us that learning can happen at home, it also taught us that learning doesn’t have to happen from roughly 8:00 am to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Some industry experts believe that providing teachers more flexibility in their jobs could help boost teacher retention, through remote work, collaboration with peers, and flexible professional development [4]. Many parents enjoyed the convenience of remote parent-teacher conferences, which eliminated the burden of a commute or scheduling challenges. For students, there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to scheduling that suits every learner’s need — but many school leaders have made the connection between flexible timelines and competency-based instruction, where emphasis is on what the student knows about the content, not when, where, or how long it took them to complete the work [5].

Alternative scheduling has a unique relationship with equitable instruction — for many students, the advantages of flexible school schedules are not new. Students who must work to contribute to their family finances, who have children of their own, or juggle other adult responsibilities have long understood the benefits for a flex schedule. Adapting COVID-era approaches to flexibility may be life-changing for these learners.

For more on creative approaches districts are taking to support students who work full-time, I suggest this article from The Urban Institute:

Moving forward, I expect to see a great deal of creativity coming from districts in an effort to establish flexible, accessible learning schedules to benefit both students and teachers long after COVID-19.

None of us — educators, parents, district leaders, policy makers, or EdTech developers — have all the answers. Much like at the beginning of the pandemic, recovering from losses will require some trial and error, lots of creative problem solving, and plenty of innovation. We’ll be relying heavily on the special relationship between teachers and their students. Armed with the right tools, teachers and students will undoubtedly continue to display the remarkable resilience they’ve shown us throughout this crisis.

Dr. Shawn K. Smith is currently serving as the Chief Innovation Officer for McGraw Hill and a national leader on issues surrounding digital education and pedagogy.

Described as an “education futurist”, Shawn is an author, speaker, entrepreneur, and rare book collector. He has one of the largest private collections of John Dewey’s writings in the world. Shawn has authored four books on education: Teacher as Architect: Instructional design and delivery for the modern teacher (2012), The New Agenda: Achieving personalized learning through digital convergence (2017), The Shape of Change: The continued journey of the Digital Convergence Framework (2018), and Wisdom and Influence: Mastering the Digital Convergence Framework (2019). Formerly Shawn was a teacher, principal, and Chief of Schools for 15 years in school districts in Illinois and California and served as CEO and co-founder of Modern Teacher for 9 years.

Shawn has made appearances on both Discovery and Learning channels as well as various radio, web, and podcast programs. Shawn has degrees from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin (bachelor’s degree, elementary education), the California State University, San Bernardino (master’s degree, middle school education), and the University of Southern California (doctorate degree, urban education policy and leadership).


[1] Pier, L., Miller, R., Wilkenfeld, B., Bookman, N., Christian, M., & Hough, H. J. (2021, January 25). PACE — COVID-19 and the Educational Equity Crisis. Policy Analysis for California Education.

[2] Becker, M. S. (2021, February 24). Educators are key in protecting student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brookings.

[3] Kang, C. (2020, May 5). Parking Lots Have Become a Digital Lifeline. The New York Times.

[4] Will, M. (2021, May 6). 4 Ways Districts Are Giving Teachers More Flexibility in Their Jobs. Education Week.

[5] Superville, D. R. (2021, March 16). Lessons From the Pandemic That Can Improve Leading and Teaching. Education Week.



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