color graphic showing a student sliding backward on a yellow slideI’ve been reading in the news the past week about educators who are concerned that with school closures going on until at least the fall, kids are in danger of undergoing ”backsliding” even more severe than occurs during summer vacations.

I want to challenge that idea.  In my mind, if students ”lose” knowledge after three or four months of no school, then that knowledge wasn’t worth much to begin with.  Yes, it’s true that the human mind has limited storage capacity for short term memory.  When a child learns something, it goes first to the short-term memory storage area of the brain (involving the hippocampus and other structures), where it can remain for anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, and unless it is reinforced with repeated applications of the same knowledge during that time, it will disappear into thin air.  There’s your backsliding right there.  However, there’s also something called long-term memory, and if knowledge stays long enough in storage to be transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory, it can be stored indefinitely.

The people who prognosticate ”academic backsliding” are really talking about knowledge that’s been put into students’ short-term memory banks.  But that’s not real learning – it’s just memorization, and fill-in-the-blank learning. Students who learn something thoroughly and deeply are not apt to forget it over a period of a few months.  But in order to do this, the teaching must be designed to make a big impression on students.  Some of the key elements involved in this kind of teaching include:

  • associations with visual imagery
  • links with strong emotions
  • connections with physical activity
  • relationships with novel learning situations
  • associations with personal experiences

Most of these things don’t happen in a typical school lesson (even less so with online learning), so yes, if students ”learn” something at a superficial level, and keep it in their brains only long enough to pass the final test, they will probably ”backslide” in their learning.  But as I said, that’s not real learning.

One of the problems here is that most educators employ an overall strategy toward teaching and learning based on grids, when it should instead be founded on networks (I’m using these two terms as metaphors). Grids are horizontal and vertical learning channels.  Some examples include:  fill-in-the-blank with whatever teacher asks you in class or on a test or in a workbook; putting ideas into ”boxes” or categories, comparing categories in a grid with those in another grid, or checklists of tasks to be completed or standards to meet, and so forth.  There’s a linear and mechanical feel to this kind of learning.

On the other hand, the idea of teaching for networks, represents a true reflection of how the brain works.  Scientists tell us that information travels through the brain via neural networks.  Imagine the roots of a tree, or even the networks made possible by hyperlinks on the Internet.  Real learning involves helping kids build richer neural networks of knowledge over time.

Imagine this:  two students come into a class on geography and they’re just starting to learn about the geography of South America.  If we could take a snapshot of each students’ neural networks with relation to the geography of South America, here’s what we might see:  For one student we might see memories of taking a trip to Chile, an image of the Andes mountains, a favorite South American food and a question about what kind of land the food was raised on, a dim memory about a huge waterfall somewhere in the middle of the continent, a rough idea of the shape of the continent.  For the other student, their network might look more like:  the feeling ”I hate geography,” a memory of a geography teacher in the past who yelled at him, a vague idea that South America is somehow below where he lives.

You get the idea?  One student’s network is far richer than the other student’s, which is built up mostly of things having little to do with the actual continent of South American and more to do with past negative experiences of learning geography.  Then the students take the class over a period of several weeks, and the first student continues to build his rich network of associations to the geography of South America, while the other student learns that South America is ”south” of North America (who could have guessed?), that they grow coffee down there, and that he got a D in the mid-term exam.  Now imagine that a pandemic hits and schools are closed for several months.  Who is going to backslide?  Not the first student, whose associations with South America are rich, complex, and deep.  It’s the second student, who didn’t hang on to the lecture notes of the teacher, did poorly on the mid-term, and wasn’t totally present for the material that was given in class.

This is why it’s difficult to make blanket statements about students backsliding if they don’t go to school for a few months.  If a student has a rich enough knowledge network of their school subjects, then they’ll likely just continue to build on them during homeschooling (especially if the learning is experiential, interest-driven, hands-on, and personalized).  It’s the students who don’t have rich learning networks with respect to a school subject who will be at risk to fall behind, and what’s disappearing are not these complex and deep connections but rather the superficial facts, dates, and ”content” that were delivered by teachers using rote learning strategies based on remembering the information long enough to pass the tests, rather than by teachers in learning environments that were dedicated to building up rich learning networks in students — networks that would endure even through a pandemic.

To sum up, whether a student will backslide depends upon, first, the richness of the learning networks he already possesses, second, the richness of the learning experiences he has had in school up to the point of school closure, and third, the quality of the homeschooling experiences he has during the interval of school closures.  That’s why, parents, that it’s important to make sure that your child or teen engages in learning at home during this pandemic that is more than just rote memory, fill-in-the-blank learning, but where he has the opportunity to continue to grow in richness and complexity the knowledge networks that he already possesses.


For more information about how to make learning experiential, emotional, personalized, and physical, see my best-selling book In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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