Learning loss: the real elephant in the room?


OVER THE next few weeks, we will examine the idea of learning loss, primarily to inquire into if this is a real challenge that faces our education system emerging out of the pandemic, or whether there are other more pertinent issues with which we have to treat as we attempt to resume face-to-face schooling.

As we are all aware, schools have been shut for the past 18 months. Teachers have not met physically with their students; students have not been able to socialise with their peers; and parents have had to assume the role of substitute teachers – no-one has been left unscathed. The term learning loss has become a part of the broader narrative on the impact of covid19. So what is learning loss?

According to the glossary of education reform (https://www.edglossary.org/learning-loss/), learning loss refers to “any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.” There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that school closures due to covid19 have created an extended gap or discontinuity in our students’ learning.

Le Thu Huong and Teereda Na Jatturas of UNESCO have identified three ways in which learning loss may occur because of the pandemic: (1) reduction in levels of learning, (2) unequal levels of learning, and (3) dropouts. As a developing state, it is important for us to consider these in our contexts for the fallout will not only affect schools but will also impact the wider society. Let us therefore look at each of these. It is only when we can identify the risk that we will know what actions we will have to take to address the problem.

Reduction in the level of learning occurs with missing school which impedes skill improvement and augments the disparities in learning. This is particularly noteworthy for us here in TT considering existing disparities that result from our tiered school system. Whether we want to admit it or not, we do not have an equitable system of education – the playing field is not level. In a context where children proceed unto secondary school after scoring 30 per cent or less on the primary exit examination and there are no adequate remediation systems of intervention in place, one can only imagine.

One study describes this phenomenon by outlining two types of retardation in growth trajectories for some students – a “melt” path or a “slide” path. Students on a melt path would have gained no ground during the school closure while students on a slide path would have lost ground academically. The question that confronts us therefore is: How do we identify these students to begin to address any problems with reduction in levels of learning?

Regarding unequal levels of learning, we may witness further disparities in students’ actual knowledge and skills gained. Even with the use of various distance-learning modalities, some students’ performance on national examinations during covid19 might differ from the performance of a similar cohort from the pre-covid19 era, or even from a similar cohort from this period but whose circumstances were more advantageous. Indeed, preliminary data emerging from the 2021 SEA results provide evidence that this may be true locally. There is of course the need to investigate this matter further for a true picture to emerge.

Finally, there is the issue of dropouts. The technological divide that exists in the country has resulted in several children not currently attending virtual schooling. A potential outcome is that these children may become dropouts when we return to face-to-face schooling. Indeed, Huong and Jatturas describe this scenario as particularly worrying, especially for marginalised and at-risk students whose learning paths they describe as discontinued, leading to limited choices and work options.

They further underscore, “Even if some students manage to reintegrate into schooling and eventually graduate, they will expectantly plunge into underemployment and unemployment as they graduate into the pandemic. This results in the loss of years and resources they have invested in earlier education.”

The phenomenon of learning loss in the pandemic is real, there is no denying it. As a society, we need to know exactly how it manifests for us. While we can gain insights from the experiences of others, we need to know the details of our own circumstances to craft an appropriate and relevant intervention.

As we inquire further into this phenomenon, our next instalment will take a look at the experience of one country whose context has been described as having the best conditions for responding to the impact of this pandemic.


"Learning loss: the real elephant in the room?"

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