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“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” – BB King


The first time I heard someone use the term ‘learning loss’ in reference to what has transpired in education over the last year, I cringed.  At the time I didn’t take the time to think through exactly what it was that made me uncomfortable- I just knew that it felt disrespectful and a misrepresentation of everything that students, teachers and parents have done over the last year.   In the 100’s of times since then that someone has tweeted, blogged, or uttered that phrase I have constructed an antithetical narrative that captures what I believe has happened in education over the last year.

The following are the definitions of learning and of loss according to the Cambridge Dictionary:

Learning:  knowledge obtained by study; the process of getting an understanding of something by studying it or by experience

Loss:  the fact that you no longer have something or have less of something; the action or state of not maintaining or having control over something any more

So, by using the term ‘learning loss’, we would be saying that our students no longer have or that they no longer have control over the knowledge they obtain through study and experience.   Do we really believe this to be true?  I for one do not.  In fact, I would argue that there has been a lot of knowledge obtained through study and experience and that students have had much more control over it than ever before.  What has been different over the last year is that it hasn’t always happened in the school building and that it might not be all of the ‘content’ that is listed in the standards or curricula.

To me, the term ‘learning loss’ is negative, represents deficit thinking, and creates unnecessary anxiety and stress for teachers, parents and students.  There are parents who are expressing concern that their children will ‘be behind’ and I want to ask- ‘behind what? or whom?’.  Teachers are frantically trying to figure out how to cram ‘missed’ content into the time that they have with students, which in turn is causing them to feel inadequate and overwhelmed.

I prefer to use a more positive term such as ‘liberated learning’ where we can examine the opportunities for new ways of learning and focus on what children have learned in the last year.  This was a term that an instructional support team that I was working with at ROE 17 came up with last spring as we were supporting schools through a transition to remote learning.  According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of liberated is:

Liberated:  to release someone from control, duties, limits, or prison

Obviously, I am not talking about imprisonment here, but perhaps it is time to release our ideas about what learning is or could be from the control and limits of the past.  You see, that child who has not logged into a single Zoom or Google Meet because they are on video games has definitely learned SOMETHING.  It may not be in the learning standards, but they are developing an understanding of something through repeated experience.  And those kids who do log in, but never turn on their cameras because they are timid, insecure, or embarrassed by their conditions- they have learned something, too.  They are making choices that are informed by an understanding that they have constructed about the world and their personal reality.  What if we stopped worrying about what HAS NOT happened and instead accept our reality and decide how to use what HAS been learned?

In the long-term work we, at Challenging Learning, conduct with schools to create effective learning cultures, and in many of the keynotes and workshops that James Nottingham presents around the world, the ASK Model is a key component when shifting the focus from compliance to learning.   With this model, we focus on the Attitudes, Skills, and Knowledge that are needed for learning.  The figure shown here is one that James has used in webinars to introduce the model.  It is, by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of the attitudes, skills, and knowledge that promote learning.

Historically, the systems and structures in schools have strongly favored and focused on the knowledge part of this model.  The lion’s share of the work and the professional dialogue that occurs in schools is focused on the learning standards, the curricula, and the assessment of knowledge.  Yet, when we think about life after school, we would all agree that we cannot possibly KNOW everything that we will need in order to live productive lives and succeed in our jobs.  What students really need is the right attitude and a strong set of skills that allow them to figure out what they need to know.  Just as Margaret Mead rightfully said, ‘Children must be taught how to think, not what to think’ it is also true that children must be taught how to learn, not what to learn.  The attitudes and skills associated with learning are so much more important than the content, and I can promise you that our children HAVE developed attitudes and skills over the last year that can be shaped and developed to support their learning.

While I am not willing to have conversations with anyone about ‘learning loss’, I would LOVE to have a dialogue about how we have ‘liberated learning’.  What skills have our students learned that will help them to access the knowledge that will be most beneficial to their long-term learning?  Which skills have students used the most when faced with challenges over the last year?  What are the attitudes that have been most valuable for students to feel regulated and ready to learn?  What attitudes have been most motivating to students?  This is dialogue that should, or rather- MUST- include educators, students, and parents.  THIS is how we can respect and show value for all the work that has been done over the last year AND how we can move forward in re-imagining what learning can be.