Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators across the country have been working to adapt to and succeed in teaching virtually, and data are emerging about how students are learning in online classrooms. Recently, the Center for Educational Justice, part of the University of Redlands School of Education, presented a virtual event on learning loss that provided an opportunity for educators from across Southern California to discuss their recent experiences. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Professors Jose Lalas and Heidi Strikwerda ’19 (Ed.D.), who hosted the webinar. The event was part of the Moving Forward series for K-16 educators on topics that have emerged during this period of distance learning.
Bulldog Blog: First off, what is learning loss?
Heidi Strikwerda: Learning loss is a term in education that is normally used to describe the knowledge lost when students experience extended time away from school, such as during summer or winter break. Recently, with COVID-19, the education sector has applied the term to what's occurring now with distance learning and virtual contexts, assuming that, because we're not having face-to-face instruction, students are losing the new things they’re learning and what they have acquired from previous years.
BB: What need did you see for a webinar on the topic?
Jose Lalas: Learning loss is a term being used at the state to school district levels. Districts have been asked to identify the learning loss of students and then to create a learning acceleration plan due to the fact education is no longer taking place in a physical classroom. We thought a webinar would be valuable. We invited a group of educators—a mix of teachers and administrators—to talk about what’s actually going on in the field and what they think of the concept of learning loss. Our panelists were David Dillion [history teacher and instructional planner, Riverside Joint United School District (USD)]; Chris Jackson [math coach, Rialto USD; Frank Mata [high school AP English teacher, Corona-Norco USD]; Maria Ordaz [assistant principal, Rialto USD]; Rachael ReHage [English teacher, Redlands USD]; and Sandy Torres [principal, Colton USD].
Strikwerda: This webinar was part of the larger Moving Forward webinar series. We’ve been so bogged down; it’s constant negativity and stress in education right now. We wanted to create a series to address topics in the conversations we we’re hearing and having. Jose hears from the community and board members, and I’m on the ground working with students at Bloomington High School, so I’m hearing from them and their parents.
BB: Do you think learning loss is really occurring?
Strikwerda: Of course, attendance is down, students might not be as actively participating, and teachers are saying students are not motivated. However, we need to reflect and think: Is it the digital divide? Is it our pedagogical practices? Or is it our mindset in approaching education in virtual contexts? If we define learning loss as loosing time and not experiencing school because of extended time away from face-to-face instruction, that could be the traditional way of looking at a loss. These unprecedented times call for a reimaging and progressive education. For example, with my students in the Master of Art in Learning and Teaching (MALT) program, I’m not seeing a learning loss currently. They are producing rigorous projects and engaging in critical discourse in our virtual classroom discussions I am seeing growth, in actuality, I am seeing learning gain. The reality is that we are all, educators and students alike, are pivoting and adjusting, and we're seeing different forms of learning occurring. I believe that the assumption of learning loss is coming from the state level.
BB: Have you found any answers to those questions?
Lalas: Yes, and they're very interesting. We found that teachers and administrators maintain confidence that kids are learning, not from a traditional view relative to the number of hours in school, assignments, and scores on tests, but learning how to cope, adjust, reimagine, and engage in different ways of doing things. Now that educators and students are outside of the physical classroom, perhaps learning loss refers to learning that has not yet been attained, as was expressed by our webinar panelists. We keep blaming the pandemic as the reason for learning loss. But how can you lose something you have not yet learned? We’re not thinking about kids’ potential. These days, the home has become a training ground. Many students are suddenly connecting with their parents and seeing the importance of the home, community events, and other things they haven’t witnessed in the past. This means that we have to upgrade our distance learning in schools and assist parents on how to make homes more conducive to learning with reliable technology and connectivity.
Strikwerda: We were talking about the theory of funds of knowledge, in which home resources, life experiences, and wisdom within the home becomes part of the student's knowledge, acquired through their conversations or interactions. It comes down to what we're trying to measure. How are we measuring learning? Are we only looking for learning that can be measured on a standardized test? Or are we actually giving students the autonomy to demonstrate their learning in a way that's meaningful to them? Because right now, with all the impacts of COVID-19, some things are more valuable and meaningful to students that wouldn’t come across in a physical classroom.
By the end of the conversation in the webinar, panelists rejected the notion of learning loss. They viewed it as a deficit perspective of the dominant culture. If we look at it from a different perspective, we add value to new environments and recognize the learning that's happening inside homes and that students are demonstrating in new ways. There are all kinds of learning going on. While we admit that this is controversial, it’s a commentary and a conversation worth having.
BB: What are the consequences of viewing education from the perspective of learning loss?
Strikwerda: The data we have access to are showing increased D and F rates across the state. Because we’re approaching education from this deficit perspective instead of pivoting, changing, or adapting, our students are failing across the board. That’s going to put more pressure on teachers and standardized lessons. Continuity plans, which are how districts are addressing education in the pandemic, require that progress be monitored and interventions provided for struggling students. But the interventions that are put in place aren’t effective in this new learning environment.
BB: How can we change the conversation and guide it away from the concept of learning loss?
Lalas: There are two ways. First, there needs to be an open and caring conversation with parents that includes well-designed training on computer technology that shows them how to assist their children in distance learning. Parents need to know that they are another source of knowledge. Second, school districts need a plan to ensure every student’s home has internet connectivity and that students have computer technology. We must view this new delivery of instruction during the pandemic as a learning gain and a discovery of the potential of distance learning.
BB: Did you come up with any other solutions for learning and teaching during a pandemic?
Strikwerda: Yes. In order to provide equitable learning across virtual and physical spaces, we must be prepared to do a few things. First, we have to welcome the experience of anxiety and discomfort because we're all having to pivot and grow. Learning different modes of teaching is going to be uncomfortable, but it's needed. Secondly, we have to identify the unique talents of our students and provide opportunities for them to be able to demonstrate those abilities in ways that are meaningful to them. Finally, we must value how students can inform our decisions. We have to make sure we're listening to students’ voices and acknowledging that students have different needs that require different amounts of attention and services.
BB: How did the webinar contribute to the missions of the School of Education and Center for Educational Justice?
Lalas: We have to think about whose interests’ school districts are serving. If it's the interest of students, then we have to really understand who our students are, how they learn, and be open to new ways of teaching and thinking that value home resources and funds of knowledge. When we talk about educational justice, we want to make sure we focus on the needs of students, teachers, and administrators, and staff. We're in the field of education because we think teaching is and should be joyful and intellectually rigorous. The Center for Educational Justice encourages educators and parents to always aspire toward learning conditions that are socially just and conducive to learning.
BB: Did you receive feedback from the webinar panelists and attendees?
Strikwerda: We received a great response. Participants found it very powerful to engage with a group of people who all want to do something right and have conversations that are reflective and encouraging. Many participants were empowered to try to instill new ideology within their work spheres. I think it's very encouraging to be able to look at a situation that seems negative, find problems, and have an ability to solve them. I believe we have a lot of the answers needed to address what's going on during the pandemic—we just need a forum to discuss them and be able to engage in that process.