The District

From Learning Science to Learning Recovery: A Forward-Looking Framework for Education Leaders

The Newsela Team
Jun 17, 2021

With millions of dollars being invested into recovery plans as students return to the classroom, it’s time to invest in re-engaging our students. Newsela co-founder and Chief Academic Officer Dan Cogan-Drew explains the need to move away from the deficit-oriented mindset of “learning loss”, focusing instead on an approach rooted in learning science. Read an excerpt of the whitepaper below.

Right now, school districts are facing a tremendous challenge: balancing the safety of reopening schools with charting the right path for learning recovery. At the same time, there’s a rare opportunity to redesign education systems to better serve all students. The conversation has justifiably moved away from returning to “normal” — there’s no denying that the old order wasn’t working for many, like the half of students who reported feeling disengaged from school. The next shift must be moving the conversation away from “learning loss.”

Reducing students’ experience of the past year to “learning loss” fails to acknowledge the magnitude of what they collectively went through, and instead introduces deficit-oriented language that echoes historical deficit-oriented characterizations of low-income communities. The term also over-generalizes and over-simplifies the problem, which can lead to heavy-handed solutions that lack nuance. There is urgency to act, but we can’t let that urgency lure us to the quickest fix.

The current focus on academic progress (or lack thereof) is representative of a larger systemic issue that existed long before the pandemic: that the design of our learning environments create impediments that stand in the way of a student’s desire to engage in classroom learning. If we do not address the root of this problem, our learning recovery efforts cannot be successful in the long run. 

In this moment, schools and districts can make important decisions that will have a direct impact on the readiness of all students to engage in learning. Within the scope of curriculum and instructional materials, there are specific principles of learning science that can be applied to inform decisions. Using Transcend Education’s set of learning science-based principles that define the conditions in which people learn best, this paper recommends district leaders align their learning recovery plans to these conditions in order to have meaningful and long-lasting impacts.

  • Ensure students and teachers are emotionally ready before diving into academics. Focus on relationships and integrate SEL skills alongside core instruction so students are in the right mindset to learn. 

  • Use assessments thoughtfully to understand where to resume teaching. Avoid high-stakes assessments or ones that are not adaptive to a student’s level, which can negatively impact students’ mental well-being and self-concept. 

  • Look forward and plan for acceleration. Don't try to reteach everything students may have missed. Focus on the essentials they need to be successful moving forward with content that adapts as they build skills.

  • Ensure your academics reflect the values of your SEL program by using instructional materials that are engaging, relevant, and inclusive. 

  • Center your plans around the teacher and create social learning experiences that we know are the foundation for academic success. 

As we return to the classroom this summer and fall, we need to remember that the goal of these efforts is not to return the design of our learning environments to the way things were pre-pandemic. Turning back the clock will return us to a time when students felt disengaged and teachers felt disempowered to change this. Instead, we need to look ahead, to a time when every piece of instructional content will be designed for inclusivity, accessibility, backed by the learning science of motivation and engagement, and available in every modality to the next generation of citizens. Let’s see this problem for what it is — a failure of engagement, not of learning lost — and proceed as fast as we can, as slow as we must, to build back to a better normal. 

Read the full whitepaper here.

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