Educators in this winter of pandemic confusion and social turmoil have had a lot to worry about. Newspapers, their predilections toward empathy overridden by their need to keep circulation up to sell ad space, have lately discovered, aided by some actual data, “learning loss.” No longer the subject of occasional summer musings while kids cavort at beachside or actually work at jobs or are busy learning new things at camp or summer school, Learning Loss, in headlines with capital Ls, is now an outcome much to be feared from the COVID-19 crisis.
Educators share this concern, of course, but we have an opportunity here to break apart some of what “learning” is to try to focus on what’s really being “lost” and what we might do, even in truncated terms, shattered schedules, and multimodal classrooms, to focus on what matters.
A key word in the conversation about how to minimize learning loss in this tumultuous time has been “content,” accent on the first syllable, as supplying the accented-second-syllable kind in quantity is out of most educators’ hands right now. The learning loss narrative tends to focus on content, used as a synonym for “how much stuff from a textbook kids memorize.”
First, it’s sad that most adults look back on their classroom learning in elementary and high schools as an aggregation of discrete factoids, formulas, and truisms; we’ve got to do better. But it’s also sad that as educators we haven’t done such a great job ourselves of clarifying the bigger aspects of learning that we actually value most: skills, understandings, and habits of mind. (And if you don’t hear those words uttered in the voice of the late Grant Wiggins, I am sorry that you missed that.)
The things we intend to teach, broadly, are, yes, content. But when we allow this to be defined exclusively by the kinds of low-Bloom-level facts and formulas that need to be memorized, we miss the boat we actually believe we are sailing.
What matters to most teachers is that students know how to take that low-level-Bloom stuff and relate it to and integrate it with other concepts. We want students to be able to analyze and apply, to think critically (if you will accept that as a real thing; some educators have a hard time with that for reasons that escape me), to use what they know as a starting point and as a set of cognitive processes and mental and emotional dispositions that will make the learning that matters not be those low-Bloom-level things but in fact the ability and the inclination to observe the world, to note things that are significant or important, and to think about these things in a way that leads to something that matters or helps in the learner’s life—whether on the final unit assessment or in later life.
Here’s an overly simple analogy that might help. Years ago I used to enjoy watching my mother-in-law make soup. There were a basic set of processes and a few basic and kind of standard ingredients. But she never made the same soup twice. The soup du jour depended on what ingredients were lying around and either fresh or just kind of needing to be used. It depended on the weather and time of year. It depended on when the soup might be served and what with.
If you will, the “content” that mattered as I learned from Sally how to make soup, was the steps in the process. I also learned about flavors and combinations and timing. The content of soupmaking is not the onions and peas and broth and herbs; the content is the integration of little physical pieces with heat in a particular order for particular lengths of time. The content is knowing how long to proceed with one step until moving on to the next. The content is knowing when the soup tastes right.
If educators are to make the most of the disrupted months ahead, they’ll need to focus not on the onions and peas of their subject areas but on how to prepare them in ways that matter. It’s not whether students can define the Wilmot Proviso but whether they understand how historical American slavery led both to the Civil War and to a society rife with racism and inequity. It’s not that they must be able to name the steps of the Krebs Cycle but that they understand how the causal relationships among those steps mirror the whole process of life itself, the interrelationship of organisms and their environment. Knowing a bunch of vocabulary words in Spanish is critically important and useful, but knowing how we assemble nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs to yield human communication is the real aim.
Normally we start with the small (“content”) and move to the big (“concepts,” or “skills, understandings or habits of mind”). Perhaps this is the time to think about starting with the big and using the small as a model—watching Sally make one kind of soup as I internalized the process of soup-making, in general and as a life skill.
Here’s a hint for all of us. We often start our “backwards” unit and course designs with essential questions. These are BIG, and some teachers really enjoy coming up with them as helping to clarify learning goals (speaking for myself, anyhow). But how frequently, after introducing the unit, do we bring these questions forward in the day-to-day learning experiences of students? How about if we did this all the time—to keep the BIG learnings right up front for our students and ourselves. Wilmot and Krebs have their place and significance, but if one of these or something like it—or even a few of them—must be sacrificed in the interest of time in this COVID-19 year, must the necessary big conceptual learning be lost?
We say, No. If we lead with and assess on concepts and ideas and dispositions and not factoids and formulas, kids will not lose essential learnings this year. The news writers will have to find something else to worry us about.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)