color photo of young girl laying on stomach reading a bookMany educators and parents have been worrying that the interruption in school being experienced by so many students nationwide (and worldwide) as a result of COVID-19 will result in significant ”learning loss.”  That is, by not having previous learning reinforced, and by not adding new learning to their experience, students will backslide in their academic achievement.  In a previous post, I questioned that view and want to elaborate some more on why I am doubtful about ”academic backsliding.’

It seems to me that if something is really worth knowing it’s not going to be lost.  If it makes a significant impact on a student, then it’s going to be integrated into their existing knowledge base.  The idea that students are going to ‘’lose’’ their learning in the course of the COVID-19 outbreak conjures up for me the image of a student who has knowledge poured into his brain during the school year, and then, while he is out of school during this interruption, this ‘’knowledge stuff’’ will start to leak out of his head as if his brain were a colander or sieve.  This bears comparison with the concerns that educators have always had about summer learning loss.

The so-called learning that is lost during the summertime is the material that didn’t go very deep in the first place. Paper thin learning.  Skin-deep learning.  So much of learning in school is like this.  I call that sort of learning Teflon learning, because the teacher pours it all out onto the student’s heads, but nothing sticks.

The thing is, if it doesn’t stick, then it couldn’t have been that important anyway.  The brain is very good at remembering things that are important to its survival.  There’s a whole area of the brain set aside for this purpose.  It’s called the ‘’limbic system’’ or ‘’emotional brain.’’  If teachers want their students to remember what they’re teaching them, the answer isn’t ‘’just give them more hours, days, and weeks of skin-deep learning.’’  The knowledge has to be connected with emotion, with their personal lives, with their memories, feelings, and experiences.

Now you might be thinking, ‘’well, you can’t do that with everything covered in school.’’ And the answer is:  ‘’yes, you can.’’  One simple way to begin this project is with a simple phrase that teachers and homeschooling parents should ask students whenever they’re teaching them something new.

It goes like this:  ‘’Now class, I’d like you to think of a time in your life when you…..’’  And the teacher fills in the blank with whatever is central to learning about that particular topic.  So,  students are studying algebra and learning about the value of ‘’x’’ as an ‘’unknown.’’  The teacher says: ‘’Think of a time in your life when you confronted something that was unknown .’’  Or, students are studying world history and learning about the French Revolution.  The teacher says:  ‘’Think of a time in your life when you felt like revolting against authority.’’  Or, the students are studying To Kill a Mockingbird, and learning about how Scout stood up for Atticus.  And the teacher says:  ‘’Think of a time in your life when you stood up for someone who was being abused.’’  This simple little phrase can inject life into even the dullest curriculum, and it’s only one of hundreds of other ideas that can get students engaged in learning.[i]

But there’s a deeper level to this inquiry.  This involves making sure that the curriculum isn’t flat to begin with.  We ask students to do so many things that are totally irrelevant to their lives.  Take factoring quadratic equations as an example.  This is seen as gateway skill for entering into higher mathematical study, and perhaps it is for some.  But for other students, it represents a closed door, or a stuck door that refuses to open and becomes an experience that sours them on mathematics in particular, and school in general.  No one has yet explained to me the practical significance of being able to factor quadratic equations.  I’ve managed just fine in my life without them.

There are so many other examples of things in school that they simply don’t need to know about in life.  We ought to identify what they are and get rid of them.  I remember a student in one of my classes who had tons of junk in his desk.  One day, my aide and I helped him clean out his desk.  We pulled something out and he made a determination, ‘’in’’ or ‘’out.’’  We got rid of a lot of stuff that day!  Let’s do that with the curriculum.  Let’s throw out the stuff that’s irrelevant to a student’s life and keep in only the material that a student really needs to have for a successful life.

So out with quadratic equations (for most students), and in with orienteering (since a student might get lost someday and need skills to find his way back).  Out with spelling rules and in with learning how to say ‘’no’’ if someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do (since students may be asked to buy drugs, smoke, have unsafe sex, or engage in other dangerous activities).  Out with the rules of grammar and in with developing proper nutritional habits (since a student may extend his life substantially by eating the right foods).

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I’m not saying that students shouldn’t learn academic subjects.  Learning how to read is vital.  Being taught the joy of mathematics should be a central part of every student’s experience at every grade level. History connects us to other ways and times, and shows students that there are things to be learned from the past.  The history of science over the past one hundred years has been one of the great adventures of humanity, and kids need to be given a chance to peer into that amazing world. But these activities should not be taught in artificial, disconnected ways, but made relevant to students’ lives.

Students shouldn’t be learning ‘’reading skills,’’ they should be reading.  Students shouldn’t be memorizing ‘’d = rt,’’ in science class, they should be learning the formula by racing model cars around a race track (that would truly be Formula One racing). Students shouldn’t be doing speed drills in mathematics, they should be playing math games, studying well-known math puzzles, seeing intriguing math demonstrations, engaging in practical math projects.  In statistics, for example, they shouldn’t be answering questions based on made-up statistical curves in a textbook, they should be studying the charts and graphs depicting the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.  In probability, they shouldn’t be listening to boring lectures on the subject, they should be building a Pascal Probability Machine (one of the first pinball machines!), and doing calculations based on its operation.

If students did these kinds of activities as a regular part of their school day, then during the summertime (or during the break in learning that some kids are getting now because of the COVID-19 outbreak), they would have an opportunity to integrate these discoveries, and perhaps even extend them with their own self-chosen projects and activities.

The idea of telling parents that one way to avoid ”academic backsliding’’ is to go to online and buy colorful math and reading workbooks for their kids and make them do the work, is simply providing more superficial learning that the kids will a) probably resent doing, and b) probably forget about as soon as they are done with them.

Parents should be encouraged to engage their children in real learning experiences, reading with them, playing math games, doing science experiments, watching movies on historical themes, hiking out in nature and studying birds and trees, listening to music, going online to visit art museums.  This is real learning.

Now that summer is approaching, many homeschooling parents are wondering if they should continue the program they’re child is studying to make up for the loss of time in school during the spring. The idea of extending the school year to ‘’curb summer learning loss’’ has been touted by many educators in the past as a way of making up the time lost, but I feel it’s really a cop-out.  It’s saying, let’s give the kids the same worn-out learning materials all year long instead of just September through June.

Is that any kind of learning solution?  The fact is, kids are already learning throughout the year.  Summertime for most kids is a time of engagement in the real world:  being out in nature, playing with friends (now online), engaging in sports, doing hobbies, and much more (all of which activities must now be customized to work with shelter-at-home guidelines).  It may be, in fact, that summer is more a valuable time of real learning than the academic school year, because students aren’t just sitting in desks manipulating a number two pencil around and listening to a teacher drone on. They’re actively out there in the world jumping around and running and building and playing and thinking and socializing.

Do educators really believe that no learning goes on during summertime?  A study came out recently indicating that children’s executive functioning in the brain (the part of the brain that organizes, reflects, plans, and many of the other things that mature adults are good at), improves in less structured rather than more structured environments.[ii]

In other words, it’s good for kids to have off-time.  They’re actually better off, in many cases when they’re outside of school, where they can jump, run, play, invent, create, imagine, and do other things that they usually aren’t even give time to engage in at school.  I’m speaking of the chance just to dream, to engage in reverie. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote:  ‘’In our childhood, reverie gave us freedom.’’[iii]

Sometimes, kids just need to be left alone to explore their own interests, try new things out, engage in self-chosen hobbies, play sandlot sports, make new friends (online for now), hang out in nature.  We’re always trying to program their unstructured time for them, as if we didn’t trust them to make their own decisions about what to do.  One bright spot in this horrid pandemic may be that kids will have more opportunities to engage in unstructured activities that feed their soul rather than only their colander minds.

[i]For some strategies and tools to engage students, see Robert Marzano, The Highly Engaged Classroom, Bloomington, IN:  Marzano Research Laboratory, 2010.

[ii]Jane E. Barker, Andrei D. Semenov,  Laura Michaelson,  Lindsay S. Provan,  Hannah R. Snyder and  Yuko Munakata, ‘’Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning,’’ Frontiers in Psychology, June 17, 2014, 5:593

[iii]Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos,  Ypsilanti, MI:  Beacon Press, 1971, p. 101.


For a look at an approach to education that values what is truly important in learning (e.g. imagination, curiosity, creativity, wonder, compassion etc.), see my new book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

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

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1 Response
  1. I remember a time in my life when quadric equations meant something.

    It was early January 1996 and I was reading about the Children on the Hill – one of them, Paul and/or Adam, was fascinated with QEs and how they worked and why.

    A few weeks later my maths textbook was filled with such wow moments as discovering Gauss and how he made patterns and divisibility real.

    And executive functioning improvement is correlated with relatively less structured environments. I can go with that, Thomas Armstrong!

    “Remind me of a time when you”…

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