wasting bandwidth since 1999

What Is Really Being Lost?

Zoom learning Screen April 2020

Returning to the topic of students “losing” learning while not in physical classrooms, Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest education writers in this country, has a broader view of the topic that goes beyond speculation based on grades and test scores. In an excellent essay for the Boston Globe from last September, he questions whether learning is really “lost” when kids are in online school.

Much of the reporting on kids “losing learning” is, of course, based on assumptions about how students would have scored on standardized tests, most of which are focused on reading and math. Kohn says that approach results in a very imprecise view of “learning”.

But as numerous analyses have shown, standardized tests are not just imperfect indicators; they measure what matters least about teaching and learning. And their flaws aren’t limited to specific tests or to how often they’re administered or to the way their results are used. Standardized testing itself, particularly when exams are timed or consist primarily of multiple-choice questions, mostly tell us about two things: the socioeconomic status of the population being tested and the amount of time that’s been spent training students to master standardized tests.

Standardized tests have always been about a simple way to rank and categorize schools, districts, and states, not about measuring student learning. Over the years (decades?), as their “importance” grew, the focus of the tests, and the overall curriculum narrowed to a few topics.

So, what learning have kids “lost” in the past year?

What, after all, does it mean to say that children can “lose what they’ve learned”? True, time away from school may entail less exposure to academic content, but that shouldn’t be equated with — nor does it imply the absence of — intellectual development. (Similarly, let’s not forget that time away from school doesn’t mean kids can’t flourish in all sorts of other ways: emotionally, physically, artistically, socially, and morally.) Too often, schooling consists of cramming bits of knowledge into students’ short-term memories — by means of lectures, textbooks, worksheets, quizzes, and homework — all enforced with grades. Many of these facts and skills are indeed forgotten, but that doesn’t mean that being out of school is calamitous. Rather, it suggests that we should reexamine what too often takes place in school.

Most students are probably not absorbing as much of the material in the authorized curriculum as past testing data predicts they should have. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been learning during the months of online learning. There is much going on the in the world that is not necessarily related to the “required” material.

Maybe, after the pandemic has passed and everyone returns to physical classrooms, we could consider organizing school around the way students create new knowledge during those “breaks”. By playing, experimenting, and collaborating with friends around ideas and topics that they find interesting.

Instead of asking them to assimilate bits of knowledge that are, for the most part, irrelevant and easily forgotten.

Anyway, Kohn has much more to say about the false promise of standardized testing, and this post is a good starting point.


I also highly recommend many of Kohn’s books, especially The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

The image is a stock photo from Zoom, the current king of video conferencing. The interface probably looks familiar to most of you, although I’ve never been in a session with that many boxes. At least not one where we were expected to actually interact.

1 Comment

  1. Doug Johnson

    Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards is one of the books that had the greatest influence on my own educational philosophy and practice – and parenting. Thanks for this shout-out to Kohn.

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