Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Our students are suffering from learning loss. … Schools and teachers should do the following to mitigate learning loss: … We must be ready to diagnose our students’ learning loss. …

This type of rhetoric has appeared in our news feeds, educational blogs and journals, curricular textbook programs, and most unfortunately, school districts across the nation.

Since the pandemic shutdown, the term “learning loss” has dangerously flown off the tongues of too many educational decision-makers.

But in working with educators in a large California school district, I believe the use of this term can result in harmful assumptions and implications for students. First, it suggests that skills and concepts have forever disappeared. Second, “learning loss” implies that students have not learned anything throughout the shutdown, therefore insinuating that learning only happens within the four walls of the classroom.

These assumptions can lead to increased deficit-thinking and lowered expectations for our students.

Aligning with “learning loss,” there exists a belief in education (though not held by all in the system) that positions students as empty vessels for teachers to fill with knowledge and skills. When students are viewed using this lens, it can result in detrimental classroom experiences. If they sense that teachers are there to mold them and pour knowledge into them, students often disconnect and disengage. Just as teachers want to be acknowledged for their knowledge and skill sets, the same is also true for our students. They wish to be seen for who they are and for what they bring to the classroom.

To those who believe that students have suffered “learning loss,” I encourage you to think about all you’ve experienced this past year and a half: resiliency when faced with challenges at school and at home; perseverance in learning to use new technological tools and programs; despair as the world we knew changed; grief from the loss of loved ones. The same applies to our students, who have learned more than we could have ever imagined. It is our job to recognize that.

When students feel seen, acknowledged and valued for what they bring to the classroom, they are more likely to trust and learn. As educators, we often shy away from topics that are difficult (e.g., the trauma of the pandemic), but in doing that, we are communicating to them that their current reality and all they’ve experienced does not matter. Building this connection will allow our students to feel more open to learning and taking both social-emotional and academic risks.

As students return to school in person, we must remember that though many struggled with accessing concepts during distance learning, there were also those who thrived in that setting. There is a strong possibility that we will encounter a wider-than-usual range of abilities in our classrooms this coming year.

So, how can we build on what our students are bringing to our classrooms? First, let’s rid ourselves of the learning loss fixation. Next, let’s think about what kinds of questions we would want someone to ask us following a traumatic year. The following list could be a place to start:

  • What have you been thinking or feeling during this time of crisis?
  • How have you been impacted by physical distancing, loss of income, loss of social connections, etc.?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • Share one thing you’ve been doing to help you move through your feelings.
  • What are some things you have learned over the past year?

These questions could be asked openly with students in a safe and brave atmosphere (one in which agreed-upon norms have been discussed with the class, for example). They could also be infused into daily class activities.

There are multiple ways in which to facilitate the affirmation of our students and all the knowledge and skills they bring to the classroom. Imagine the possibilities of viewing and treating students as funds of knowledge from which to build upon.

We no longer need to exasperate ourselves with the idea of filling learning gaps, but rather aim to strengthen our students’ current identities and the skill sets they bring.

Let’s empower teachers and students to see the past year as a transformative experience that has strengthened them as people and as learners.

•••

Leigh Dela Victoria, Ph.D., is an instructional coach for the Fontana Unified School District.

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  1. Ann 1 month ago1 month ago

    ‘Forget Learning Loss”? So completely irresponsible.

  2. Cindy Seibert 2 months ago2 months ago

    Great article! My high school student in Special Ed missed school and the routine that comes with school. Closing school for so long was detrimental to social growth and academic growth. Online learning was not the platform for students with special needs, although you do the best you can. Learning loss means something different to everyone. Parents teach everyday, let us not ignore that. What my student lost was "social" primarily, … Read More

    Great article! My high school student in Special Ed missed school and the routine that comes with school. Closing school for so long was detrimental to social growth and academic growth. Online learning was not the platform for students with special needs, although you do the best you can.

    Learning loss means something different to everyone. Parents teach everyday, let us not ignore that. What my student lost was “social” primarily, which all students need. Interactions with other peers. I don’t have a class of 12 at home!!

  3. Martin Blythe 2 months ago2 months ago

    Excellent commentary. For me, last year was an absolute pleasure: I enjoyed online/Zoom teaching just as much as classroom teaching, if not more so, and - I believe - so did almost all of my students. Maybe the stars aligned, I don't know. Yes there were a few who did not like it; I had 9th graders and 12th graders for Special Ed English. But, I do know that almost none of them seemed to … Read More

    Excellent commentary. For me, last year was an absolute pleasure: I enjoyed online/Zoom teaching just as much as classroom teaching, if not more so, and – I believe – so did almost all of my students. Maybe the stars aligned, I don’t know. Yes there were a few who did not like it; I had 9th graders and 12th graders for Special Ed English.

    But, I do know that almost none of them seemed to think that their education suffered. We talked about this and they weren’t just trying to please. The “learning loss” nonsense strikes me as the usual propaganda we have to deal with.