Learning Loss and Catch Up… it’s not that simple

Helen Caldwell

Helen Caldwell

Professor Bob Harrison delves behind the headlines and mythologies to find whether there are any golden threads in the tragedy and challenge of COVID-19.

In recent weeks there have been numerous mentions, reports and research studies about the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s learning.

Many of them use the terms “Learning Loss” and “Catch Up” which are nice clichés but it’s not that simple is it? Who has lost? What have they lost? Where has it gone? Have some lost more than others? How could that be? How might we know?

As far as I can see none of these questions have been addressed in sufficient detail to allow us to move on to consider the question of “Catch Up”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has called for a national policy response, warning: “By the time the pandemic is over, most children across the UK will have missed over half a year of normal, in-person schooling. That’s likely to be more than 5% of their entire time in school.”

Without a “substantial policy response”, it warns, “We will all be less productive, poorer, have less money to spend on public services, and we may be less happy and healthy as a result. We will probably also be more unequal, with all the social ills that come with it.”

Responses like this, and there are many, are extremely concerning which makes it difficult to understand why the Government has chosen this time to cut the funding for pupil premium, its programme designed to support inclusion.

The Guardian newspaper warns: “Urgent support must be targeted at disadvantaged pupils and schools in areas of high deprivation, researchers have said, as figures reveal the gap in England between some pupils and their wealthier peers widened by 46% in the school year severely disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown.”

Similar findings from the Education Policy Institute also support this. And of the course the Education Endowment Foundation, the DfE’s go-to source for research and home of the Government’s ‘Catch Up Tsar’, also backs up this suggestion.

Is Learning Loss real?

However, some educationists feel the concept of learning loss may be exaggerated, especially by organisations with a vested interest (they will probably be bidding for Government ‘catch up’ funds). Indeed, many suggest that some learners have gained during the lockdown period. It is generally accepted that nature has benefited from the lifting of the restrictions placed on it by human activities, as David Attenborough’s acclaimed “The year Earth Changed” documentary argues: “living in lockdown opened the door for nature to bounce back and thrive”. So why not our children?

A recent study from the USA suggests that learning loss is a misleading term. “Learning loss, in general, is a misnomer,” says Katie McClarty, the vice president of research and design at the US company Renaissance. “Kids’ scores are going up.” For the most part, the gap between where students’ scores are now and where Renaissance would estimate them to be in a “normal year” is shrinking. But, the company found, that gap still exists.

Using past results, the researchers estimated how well students would have done on these tests had the pandemic not hit. Then, they compared this estimate to students’ actual scores from this winter. The issue of complexity and starting point disadvantage also emerges: “The COVID-19 impact was greater for black, hispanic, and Native American students than for their white and Asian peers, and for English-language learners and students with disabilities.”

The COVID-19 ‘Golden Generation’

Back here in the UK there are those who note a ‘David Attenborough effect’ in education. They believe the creativity, resilience and ingenuity this “golden generation” has already shown is comparable to the generation of children who lived through the hardship and trauma of World War 2. Educator Professor Stephen Heppell has a very clear and optimistic view about the “Golden Generation” who he addresses in the introduction to his Golden Generation Certificate offer:

“There is much talk about you needing to ‘catch up’ and of the things that some adults think that you have missed during this current pandemic. Yet you, your peers and your parents know that you have had many experiences (not all of them wonderful) that have been very different to the experiences you would have had, in conventional times, at school.

“It’s not just you; the last huge worldwide disruption of children from many nations was World War 2. In the UK it faced children with everything from evacuation to underground shelters, bombing and rationing. Never mind the current lockdown for a few months – many children in WW2 were evacuated away from their families for years! But that disruption gave them much – resilience, ingenuity, responsibility, confidence, creativity, bits of unexpectedly deep knowledge, and more. The value of that is seen in that war-born generation… a very special generation who did things in rather non-standard ways, and who rebuilt the booming post-war world.

“Your new current Golden CoVID Generation exhibit that same ingenuity and resilience but it’s not yet properly recognised. You need to know that you are also a very special, very valuable, wonderful generation. We haven’t seen anything like you all for 75 years and we may not see it again for another 75 years.”

So, irrespective of whether you feel learners have lost out, and undeniably some have, the issue is much more complex and nuanced than catch phrases of “loss” and “catch up” And the solution is much more complex than dishing out laptops to children, bunging a few million into the private tutor agencies or broadcasting talking head teachers.

The role of educational technology in the ‘new normal’

What is clear is that technology has played a critical part in supporting teachers and learners – even though it has been hampered by the limited views and practices of Government – and it looks like it will play an ever increasing role in a “new normal” (yet another annoying cliché).

Several reports reaffirm that view. First, the Shock to the System: lessons learned from COVID-19 report from Professor Rose Luckin at the Educate project at University College London with Cambridge Partnership for Education makes a series of findings and recommendations about the need for investment in digital infrastructure, learning design but more importantly the development of the confidence, capability and capacity of the education workforce.

“Our key findings were that too little attention was given to the education ecosystem in its entirety and that effective connections are vital to supporting the education ecosystem,” says the report, which comes with constructive and pertinent suggestions for policy.

Second, despite more than ten years of techno-scepticism at the heart of government policy, and the destruction and depletion of the support infrastructure for the use of technology to support teaching, learning and assessment, a recent UK Parliament report Distance Learning offers pointers to a more coherent vision of how technology can be used to engage and empower learners and extend and enhance learning.

This report, from a wide range of respected academic researchers and professors, is a step change from the tired rhetoric of some education ministers of “taking back control” from the experts. Its key points are well worth considering.

Finally, a very comprehensive report with a truly global view, has just been released by Unesco. It concludes: “If we are concerned to create educational practices that work towards the common good and towards sustainable futures, then, our first concern must be to attend to the causes of existing injustices, individualisation and unsustainability and to proceed from there.”

It suggests that we need to learn lessons from the past and lays some suggestions for “‘non-stupid’ optimism about educational technologies”. These require “a recognition of what we have learned from the past, namely:
1 That digital technologies alone do not transform education;
2 That digital technologies do not improve learning;
3 That digital technologies do not fix inequalities;
4 That digital technologies do not alleviate teachers work;
5 That there are unintended consequences of digital technology use in education that are impossible to predict and that stretch far beyond matters of learning;
6 That any ‘impacts’ are context specific and tied with socio-technical factors.”

It’s essential that we gain a much deeper understanding of terms like “Learning Loss” and “Catch Up” and then perhaps a clearer idea of who might need to catch up (if, indeed, they do), why they need to catch up and what they need. Then let schools and colleges decide what will work best for their learners rather than top-down blanket approaches, that may sound good as sound bites but too often do not work. Recent research about the impact of digital technologies gives us a really clear idea of what does and does not work.

Then we need a Government and an education minister committes to shaping a future vision and a strategy to implement it. Yes it’s a big ask because this has been sadly missing for more than ten years.

If Professor Heppell is correct then perhaps the “Golden Generation” will be much better equipped to handle the next pandemic than this one. And it could be the way we acquire an education system fit for purpose.

A version of this article first appeared in the TES: https://www.tes.com/news/could-covid-19-catch-up-schools-have-created-golden-generation

Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/kids-girl-pencil-drawing-notebook-1093758/

Bob Harrison is a former teacher, lecturer and college principal, member of the Ministerial Further Education Technology Action Group, education adviser for Toshiba Information Systems and assessor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education Masters programme “Learning Design with Technology”. He is chair of Northern College and a governor at Oldham College. He tweets @bobharrisonedu