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Pandemic learning loss is real. Schools must follow the science to catch up

When the stakes are high for policy decisions, as of course during a public health crisis, we hear the mantra to “follow the science.” As millions of students return to the classroom for the third academic year affected by COVID-19, this principle applies to schools as well.

Parents and teachers alike are concerned about the loss of learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. One notable study found that the average student was five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the school year. But these numbers also mask the inequality; For low-income schools, the math count is seven months.

It is understandable that parents and schools want to catch up immediately, but it is unrealistic to think about that after a few months Any thing It will fill the gaps created by the epidemic completely. Most likely, teachers are looking at a long game, perhaps three or more years during which schools should do their basic work better. If we simply go back to our pre-pandemic ways, it won’t happen – because before the pandemic, we weren’t really following the science.

For example, science-based pedagogy will require a shift to include a much greater focus on knowing the facts. Educators tend to underestimate the importance of knowledge, as if teaching facts by rote detracts from teaching higher-order thinking skills. But science shows otherwise. “The processes that teachers care about most,” such as critical thinking and problem solving, “are closely related to factual knowledge stored in long-term memory,” wrote Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia.

What we consider critical thinking is often our minds that connect bits of knowledge. However, we continue to romanticize an impossible shortcut: teaching critical thinking as if it were a globally applicable skill.

Nowhere is it clearer and more problematic than the subject of reading, which schools consider to be a directly taught set of transferable thinking skills: I will teach students what inference is, and this will allow them to make inferences about whatever text they read. In fact, students make inferences when they can read fluently – at sight speed – and have the vocabulary and basic knowledge to name what the author hasn’t said.

Educators often underestimate the importance of memory. The knowledge gained from learning facts must be well stored and easily accessible to be useful. Cognitive scientist Paul Kirschner argues that memory building is “the goal of all instruction” and that “if nothing changes in long-term memory, nothing is learned.”

It’s uncomfortable to think that so much of what we do in school boils down to something very ordinary, but Kirchner explains that memory is the difference between performance and learning.

Performance is a temporary change in actions or ideas that are achieved while engaging in the study. At the end of the lesson, if the students seem to understand an idea, their teacher might think, “Wow, they really understand juxtaposition.” But if after weeks, perhaps at test time, the students have not remembered anything about juxtaposition, the learning hasn’t really taken place.

Turns a well-functioning classroom into reliably learning by asking students to recall and apply the things they have learned after a delay. This is known as the retrieval exercise. Without it, students start learning only to escape their grasp.

Educators also resist evidence that experts learn differently than novices. For beginners (like most students in the early stages of most endeavors), the dynamic and engaging forms of direct instruction are most efficient, especially woven with accurate examples, questions, and retrieval practice. Conversely, experts work best with projects and real-world problems. Beginners in such cases care about much more noise than signal, and in the end they learn less. Cognitive scientist John Sweller calls this phenomenon the “fading-orientation effect”. Bottom line: start with direct instruction energized by short breaks for questioning and reflection.

In a time of crisis, such as two years after epidemiological learning loss, we tend to spend vast resources ineffectively unless we recognize that facts and memory are worthy goals and that direct guidance has a role to play.

Finally, we must take into account the emotional needs of the students, now more than ever because many of them are isolated.

Belonging is one of the deepest human feelings and motives. It is essential for psychological safety, and the work of its construction is never completed. Consider a classroom where students are socialized to begin their comments by referring to what a former student said: “I agree with Cassidy and want to provide another example.” This conveys to Cassidy that her comments were meaningful to her peers. This can also be achieved if her classmates are looking at her, when Cassidy is talking, nodding and sending positive nonverbal social signals that they value her words. Only peers can provide this sense of belonging, but teachers can promote the environment as a social norm.

Our awareness of social norms is the most important influence on what we do and think. A classroom where other students see other students positively and consistently engaged in learning is one in which they are most likely to do it themselves.

Educators can prepare their classrooms for productive social norms with clear routines and procedures. For example, the teacher might say, “Take a minute to discuss your reaction to the passage with your partner.” By default, everyone is involved. Or it is if students expect their peers to participate. Then they will too, and the room will come alive. Without clear and well-established standards, students are more likely to play the wait-and-see game and lose the discussion.

If we are to make post-pandemic schools better for students, we must base our education on the science that reveals the importance of knowledge and memory, the need to meet students wherever they are, and the outsized role that affiliation plays in educating students for their lives. Curricula rooted in those fundamentals will bear fruit long after students have compensated for lost epidemiological learning. The students have already lost a lot. Let’s make every moment count.

Doug Limoff, author of Teach Like a Champion 3.0, is Managing Director at Uncommon Schools.

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