During the Covid-19 pandemic, students all over the world faced one of the largest disruptors of education in history. School closures across more than 190 countries impacted the routine and learning outcomes of 1.6 Billion students. By August 2020, 93% of households in the US reported the use of remote learning. Despite things returning to normal for over a year, we continue to see the ripple effect of this massive disruption.
A number of organizations and researchers have tried to estimate the loss in learning due to the pandemic. A report by Stanford University estimated that during Spring 2020, students lost between 57 to 183 days of learning in Reading and from 136 to 232 days of learning in Math. A study in the Netherlands, which had a relatively lockdown period and is known for its equitable and well-funded schools, showed that students made little to no progress in learning from home.
One of the challenges with the analyses on learning loss thus far, is that they focus narrowly on a few subjects, primarily math and reading. Finding an effective set of solutions to address unfinished learning is not an easy task. However, there is a wrong solution – solely relying on standardized tests. A myopic focus on test scores leads to sub-par teaching (“teaching to the test”) and pushes out more holistic interventions. We have seen this play out before when the No Child Left Behind Act was implemented in 2002. The Act converted testing as an informational mechanism to an accountability mechanism, changing teaching patterns inside classrooms. Teachers spent less time on subjects that were not being tested, like the arts, and spent less time on open-ended exploratory work like project based learning.
What we need are more holistic approaches that build student enthusiasm, curiosity and engagement towards learning. Here are three strategies to incorporate when designing intervention programs to address unfinished learning, without falling into the trap of standardized testing.
Teach For Creativity
Incorporating creative thinking into regular subjects, like math, reading or science, deepens learning. Paradoxically, this approach ends up improving standardized test scores despite test results not being an explicit goal. Creative thinking encourages students to think about a concept from multiple perspectives, question assumptions they might be making and synthesize solutions from multiple strands. These cognitive processes help students deepen their understanding of the subject matter and retain information for longer. More importantly, they help students become better thinkers and problem solvers in the long run.
For teachers to incorporate creativity into the classroom, they need to be mindful of the distinction between “teaching creatively” and “teaching for creativity.” When educators find a clever way to introduce a concept in the classroom, say using Bitmoji classrooms, they are teaching creatively. Their own creativity is at play in designing the lesson plan for the concept. This by itself is a good thing if it makes the lesson more engaging and helps students learn the concept more easily. However, “teaching for creativity” goes a step further – it allows students to build and exercise their own creativity.
Well designed project-based learning modules are one way to encourage students to be more creative. However, it’s not hard to incorporate creative thinking in smaller doses by substituting a couple of traditional assignment questions with more creative ones. With this approach neither the students or the teachers are burdened with extra work. Key elements to keep in mind when incorporating creativity, in big or small doses, are:
- Open-ended problems where multiple solutions are valid.
- Problems are designed so that one more creative cognitive processes, like associative or analogical thinking, are engaged.
- An ability to share their work with their peers and learn from them.
High quality arts programs, especially visual arts and music, have a strong correlation with academic success. Arts provides an avenue for students to build confidence to try new things in a safe environment. Incorporating arts increases both children’s self-efficacy and original thinking, according to a research study. As the authors noted, “Self-efficacious children believe they can be agents in creating their own futures and are more optimistic about what the world has in store for them.”
A randomized controlled trial with over ten thousand K-12 students in Texas, found that arts-learning experiences led to fewer disciplinary issues, higher student engagement and improved writing achievements.
While standardized tests are a useful way to track student progress, they should be a small part of broader evaluations. Teachers should balance graded work with non-graded work that rely on constructive feedback. Quantitative scores orient students away from their own intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation, which leads to higher anxiety and lower interest in the subject matter. Providing opportunities to students to share their projects or other original work with their peers and get their feedback is another low-pressure way for students to learn from each other. Finally, teachers should also encourage frequent self-evaluations to build student capacity to critically analyze their own work. When students find their own areas of improvement, they are much more intrinsically motivated to improve and learn.
The learning loss created by the pandemic is significant and real, but we need to approach it cautiously. Prioritizing standardized test scores instead of more holistic approaches can lead to disastrous consequences in the long-term. Instead we need to double down on tried and tested methods – incorporating creative thinking and arts, and toning down the performance pressure.
This article first appeared on edCircuit.