Assessing What We Really Need To Lose To Catch Up

Stephen Dexter, Jr. 

Do we need to drop some outdated educational ideas in order to better equip the next generation of big thinkers?

Rethinking Learning Loss

When I read Stephen Merrill's article on learning loss (Edutopia, April 16, 2021) I could almost hear the cement drying on a lost opportunity. We boldly proclaimed in early 2020 that we were not going to waste this crisis, that the opportunity presented by 'the great accelerator' would not be lost. That the changes forced on everything from the workplace as a place, to health care, food delivery, cinema, exercise, and transportation would not be lost. 

It was only two years ago that running a virtual class for long periods of time was unthinkable, a bizarre experiment that would not be tolerated for more than a day by communities that expected their children to go to a place to learn. In less than two years, we designed hybrid, virtual, and hyflex learning models. All of the innovations forced by this pandemic would have taken at least another decade to be widely accepted. 

I cringed at the bloggers and LinkedIn professors that reminded us from 2000-2019 how broken the current education system was. We'd been talking about this new 21st century learning for so long that Sir Ken Robinson even passed away before anything really changed and we are now starting to wonder what the 22nd century will look like as we rumble to the halfway point of this epoch. 


Redefining learning loss

Assessing the rubble of the pandemic is complex. For people that made the impulsive decision to buy a Peloton, maybe they decided to start running outside again. But for those in the education business, going back to "the way things were" and trying to patch up the past two years like a gaping wound, is a mistake. We didn't just hit the pause button in 2020. We were forced to pivot in a way that has shifted a lot of our thinking about how we educate people and how this experience is delivered. 

When we were playing with online learning pre-pandemic, we tinkered with MOOCs, webinars, Khan Academy, and videoconferencing. But they were gimmicks, not at the core of what we did, and didn't seem to grow or change so much. It felt almost like PowerPoint. Once the platform was invented, that was pretty much it. 

But when everyone from your kindergarten teacher to your high school art teacher was forced to teach from behind a screen, nothing could really go back to the way things used to be. 

We all want things to be normal again. We want to just be comfortable, to hug one another, laugh openly in bars, enjoy packed yoga classes and concerts. Those returns to normal are understandable. But simply going back to the same old tired content and the same old tired curriculum just isn't going to work. To make matters worse, we are now saying things like learning loss and closing the gaps that are putting the same pressures we put on teachers over the last two years not to lose a step. 

I was speaking to a student the other day and he said, "I am so done with talking about the Middle Ages where all we learned about was 500 years of people lying around being sick." Being stuck behind a computer screen for months at a time shined the spotlight on education just as it did food delivery and made me think of two things:

  • A lot of what we are supposed to learn at school is unrelated to what the world needs from the next generation of people. 
  • People need to interact and be together to have truly impactful learning experiences. In other words, online learning will never replace good teachers. 

The remote learning experience lacked genuine human interaction
The remote learning experience lacked genuine human interaction

Our kids are not broken

Ron Berger, whose article in the Atlantic ("Our Kids Are Not Broken" March 20, 2021) about learning loss speaks to this issue, said, “I kept hearing about ‘remediating learning loss,’ and I had this vision that school was going to be a place where all the kids come in and get tested and triaged and sent to different areas to get fixed.”

There has to be a resistance to hitting the pause button to go back on the treadmill and making it go faster so we can catch up. There has to be a reflection, a pause on the way we have done business and promised to do business since the clocks ticked to Y2K and miraculously all the traffic lights didn't malfunction. 

The first thing that is obvious is how the silo effect that was unfortunately already in place pre-pandemic, has been replicated on our return to buildings. We have literally moved from sitting in front of a computer alone at home to sitting in front of a computer in rows at a place. It's why we can't let this moment slip away, why we have to redesign the experience and purpose of people coming together to learn. One of the most exciting days during the pandemic was when we did an outdoor education hike on a virtual day. It was genius!

Making learning experiences collaborative
Making learning experiences collaborative

Redefining how we 'do' education

When I examine the scope and sequence of subjects, the inner workings of where content, skills, standards and assessments intersect, I don't see anything that has changed much since when I was in high school in 1984. 

From the "college and career readiness anchor standards for the common core (

To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts. Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge as well as familiarity with various text structures and elements. 

It's hard to argue with this, but I'll give it a shot. The most transformational text from 2016-20 was arguably that of the American President's twitter account. In one fell swoop, he declared the media the enemy of the people and anything that he didn't agree with as fake news. It was transformational and reshaped the information habits of millions.  It was easy. Too easy. 

In 2022, we don't read 'widely and deeply' from a broad range of high-quality texts. We simply don't have time and those habits were lost shortly after the internet was invented thirty years ago. We scan multiple sources of information, send a few DMs, like a posting or two, and type a few notes on a Google doc. 

Yes, there are habits of mind that need to be developed, nurtured, and tested so that we can swim in the tsunami of information that flows over us every day. But we have to do a much better job at revising these skill sets and what content that are connected to, especially in the humanities. Here's another example from the college and career readiness common core standards: 


Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author's claims.

I observed a class recently, and they were addressing this standard (I think) with a cross walk of primary and secondary sources describing the infamous interactions between the Incas and Pizarro's people. As a former history teacher, I think I have the credibility to say this, but who cares what Atahualpa was thinking  in the 1500s when he allegedly threw Valverde's Bible to the ground because he couldn't read it? 

Not only is there minimal evidence that this event actually occurred, but I just don't see how this makes our students more literate in 2022. The Spanish wanted the gold and slaughtered everyone that got in their way. Is this giving us a new insight? Do we need to read unreliable accounts from the 1500s to understand that people can be very mean to one another?  

The vehicles that drive learning

So, to address this phenomenon of learning loss, we must reassess what we need to lose in order to learn. I don't think anyone will notice if a few hundred years of history or outdated English texts aren't taught so that we can "catch up" whatever that means.   

The vehicles we use to drive learning and what we should be doing in the physical environment of a school (versus the virtual one) is shifting. If students need to learn how to decipher text and sources, then let's make this experience meaningful and structure time in a way that focuses a lot less on subjects that were outdated pre-pandemic (and now seem neolithic) and more on the engaging skills and practices that will enable our learners to be the creative thinkers and designers that we need them to be.