Shifting From Learning Loss to Recovering Learning in the New School Year
The start of a new school year has always been my favorite time of year. The freshness, anticipation and possibilities energize and excite me as I reconnect with colleagues and build relationships with new students and families. This year, though, educators are also facing the impact of a global pandemic on students’ mathematical understandings, opportunities to learn and social-emotional well-being. The situation creates unique challenges as we begin the 2021–22 school year, but by shifting our perspectives, we can view each of these challenges as an opportunity for positive change, growth and recovery.
Shifting our language
Language around “learning loss” has dominated the media, professional education organizations and conversations amongst educators. It makes logical sense to assume that because students were not consistently in classrooms they weren’t learning math as they would have without the pandemic. Shifting our perspective to focus on the positive experiences students had, though, allows us to understand that learning did occur. It may not have looked the same as in previous years, but if you look carefully, it was there. For instance, many students learned self-discipline by participating in virtual lessons, completing assignments and managing their time in ways that “regular school” didn’t require. Some students learned that they could engage with content at a different pace or have discussions with their classmates in breakout rooms — opportunities that they may not have had if they had been in in-person classrooms. Ensuring that students know that their learning, whatever it was, is recognized and valued by their teachers will help teachers establish a positive and safe environment for learning in their classrooms. Intentional use of language that is asset-based, such as “unfinished learning” or “opportunity to learn,” rather than the deficit-based “learning loss,” helps address the social-emotional needs of teachers and students and sets the stage for positive learning experiences in the new school year. Students are more likely to feel safe and comfortable knowing that their teacher does not believe that they are starting the school year lacking something, and this safety and comfort is crucial. After all, relationships are the cornerstone of a learning classroom.
Shifting our scope and sequence
Alongside relationships, a focus on content is key to learning. Many math teachers plan each day, week, month and school year from a scope and sequence, providing a high-level view of the important mathematics for their grade or course. In the best of scenarios, these scope and sequence documents can feel overwhelming, and they are sometimes accompanied by the expectation that teachers cover a specific topic on a specific day. In this unprecedented year, students will benefit if their teachers pare back the standard scope and sequence document to allow for more focused instruction around fewer topics, flexibility for students to make meaning of new content, and space for just-in-time support with prerequisite topics that may be unfinished learning for students. Rushing through content for the sake of coverage is tempting, but any teacher who has had to remind students what they were taught yesterday, last week, last month or last year can attest that “coverage” does not equal “learning.” Working with colleagues, teachers can determine the most important concepts of the grade or course — those that are prerequisite for future learning, then connect to many other math topics and that generalize to big mathematical ideas — then create time during the school year to allow for engagement and deep thinking around these topics. Using guidance from trusted resources, such as Student Achievement Partners’ “Mathematics: Focus by Grade Level” documents or the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ (NCTM) “Continuing the Journey” document, teachers can work together to prune the scope of content and create time and space for deep learning, and provide just-in-time interventions (check out these ideas from TNTP). Let’s remember, and adhere to, the understanding that when it comes to 2021–22 math scope and sequences, less is more.
Shifting our instruction
With positive relationships and a viable scope and sequence in place, the last area of focus for teachers is what actually happens in classrooms. Incorporating NCTM’s mathematics teaching practices, educators set themselves and students up for successful learning experiences. Selecting high-quality tasks that promote reasoning, facilitating meaningful mathematical discourse, and supporting students’ productive struggle, teachers can increase the access to and learning of meaningful, grade-level mathematics content. Lessons that elicit and use evidence of student thinking and use and connect mathematical representations help to ensure that all students progress in their learning, and make connections between the mathematics they know and the new mathematics of the grade or course.
Texas Instruments’ Building Concepts materials are one resource for deeper learning experiences that allow and provide connections to other math ideas. Now is the time to double down on the instructional practices that were effective before the pandemic, like ensuring students are building conceptual understanding and making sense of mathematics, and to let go of those that didn’t contribute to student learning, like only using lectures, note taking and skills practice. Although it can feel like we are saving time when we teach by telling, if students don’t really engage with the content and make connections to their own understandings, true learning doesn’t really happen, and we (or a future teacher) will be reteaching the same content again down the road. In short, working with fewer math concepts and providing the classroom structures and time to deeply engage pays off in student learning down the road.
Better than ever
The 2021–22 school year offers educators a chance to do better than we’ve done before. The time is right to shift our language and beliefs about students’ abilities and potential, and empower them to build on the important things they learned during the pandemic, both academic and not. Teachers can collaborate to ensure they have a viable curriculum that provides a realistic amount of time for deep learning of important mathematics concepts to occur. There is a strong evidence base for instructional strategies that are most likely to result in student learning, and supports for ensuring that educators can effectively implement these strategies. By making some shifts, we can learn from, and capitalize on, the opportunities afforded by the pandemic.
In our “Room To Grow: A Math Podcast,” my colleague Curtis Brown and I discuss ways to make these shifts, and we hope you will give it a listen for more ideas. We are all in this together, and we have a common goal: ensuring our students learn and recover from the events of the last 20 months. We’ve got this!
About the author: Joanie Funderburk taught high school math for 20 years and has supported math educators across the country since 2015 through her work at Student Achievement Partners and Illustrative Mathematics. Joanie previously chaired NCTM’s Membership and Affiliate Relations Committee and is the immediate Past-President of the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Funderburk’s passion for professional learning for educators and equitable math learning for all students continues to drive her work at Texas Instruments, where she serves as the Strategic Alliance and State Policy Director. She lives in Parker, Colorado, with her husband and dog. Follow Joanie on Twitter and Instagram @JoanieFun.