Why there's no such thing as lost learning

By James Williams on 20 January 2021

Children don't have to learn core content now – we musn't let them think they are 'losers', writes James Williams

The move to delivering online teaching is problematic. Children may be living in homes with poor wi-fi, in data poverty or with no access to a suitable device

While these are problems that hit the headlines and gain a lot of media traction, there is an underlying narrative that’s a lot more harmful than not being able to view a lesson at home. It is the narrative that our children are losing out and falling behind, and that they need to catch up

As the situation has developed across the first lockdown and this one, I’ve been listening to media interviews and have noticed a worrying narrative. A popular line of questioning to parents and children is about “lost learning”.

The narrative focuses on the idea that children only have one chance: that what is not done now is lost, and this is extremely damaging for their future education or employment prospects.

The danger here is that we risk creating a generation of children who will forever be known as the “lost” generation. But their learning has not been lost – because you cannot lose something you never had. 

Coronavirus: The impact of school closures

I could claim I “lost” a lot of learning in history, geography and music because I didn’t study these at O level. Yet, over the years, I have gained more knowledge about these subjects than I could ever have lost, missing out on two years of study. 

And this is the crux of the problem. If we keep on convincing children that they only have this one opportunity, right now, to gain this learning or it’s all over, we will be responsible for convincing children they are being disadvantaged for life, regardless of whether or not they are.

The fact is that we – as a community of politicians, teachers and education experts – decide what any child must know, understand or be able to do at each age, not some natural law of learning. Why should a child know the structure of a cell membrane by the age of 16? I couldn’t know that information at 16 because it had not yet been fully discovered and described. But I learned it at a later stage. 

We could just as easily change what we require children to know, understand and be able to do as leave it alone. Change will, of course, have knock-on consequences, but they are consequences I think we can accept and adjust for.

There's a very good phrase that many teachers bear in mind when planning lessons: “Start where the child is at." Rather than running around like headless chickens, bemoaning what's been lost this past year, let’s plan to find out what learning has taken place. This is what our assessment over the coming months should concentrate on. 

Focus on the gains, not the losses

Rather than devising multiple variations on what we've always done – testing children – perhaps we need a new approach that looks to review holistically their learning, place it in context and use that to adapt the next stages of learning.

We can use information from test results, assessments of work done and even – dare I say it – reflections of the teachers who know the children best like an end-of-year report. It can detail what was covered and how much time was missed or spent online.

The curriculum we are supposedly testing and assessing children on was designed for a time when there was no pandemic, no blended or online teaching and learning. Currently, all I see is people going crazy over what's being lost, and trying to shoehorn the non-pandemic curriculum into a totally different landscape. 

Let's try thinking more holistically. We have a rare opportunity here to reshape our educational landscape and make it better. Why are we not planning to teach far less, but teaching it so that children gain a greater depth of understanding, rather than a breadth of superficial knowledge?

For those who would argue that we can’t teach less because it would disadvantage young people entering the workforce, I’d ask how much of the core knowledge you learned in all your O levels, GCSEs, A levels or even degree is used day to day. 

Employers continually bemoan the fact that graduates don’t have the “right” knowledge for their industries. That’s true. Why are physics graduates so often employed as commodity traders? It’s not because they can explain forces or how gravity works or why fluids behave the way they do. It’s their skills in mathematics and logic.

Children are learning at home, with or without a device. By “learning”, I don’t mean remote lessons in English, maths or science. Children have more free time to explore arts and crafts, music and any number of life skills, from baking to improving their IT abilities. We need to talk about all these things they have gained, and not just focus on what’s been “lost”.

We're making a huge error thinking that the only time children can learn the core content of the current curriculum is now. Let’s change that, so we don’t unwittingly convince a whole cohort of children that they are just losers.

James Williams is a senior lecturer in education at the School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex. He tweets @edujdw