Why “Return to Learning” Is a Phrase I Hate
The notion that learning ever stopped during the pandemic, just due to a change in the traditional dynamic of school, is a very…
Pandemic or not, the notion that learning ever stopped, just due to a change in the traditional dynamic of school, is a very condescending notion that this teacher does not appreciate.
For the purposes of clarity, this article is not about the local politics of deciding to bring students back to the physical classroom. I respect that there are different scenarios and environments that would elicit different decisions, in different places, at different times. Nor is this piece designed to trigger anger or outrage. It is simply focused on the devaluation of teacher’s and student’ ability to learn in a way that was not common for most institutions at the time.
This article is about the phrase “Return to Learning” and the assumption that just because students were not in the physical school, their quality of education dropped, and/or there was no learning happening at all.
Did we honestly think learning stopped?
The phrase “return to learning” encapsulates a lot of frustration from me as it is the umbrella statement under which other phrases existed. Some of the others were: “last year was a mess”, “we aren’t thinking about students”, and “no one can learn this way.”
The teacher in me is now going to allow some wait-time to let those marinate with the reminder that students “went” to school in some way EVERYDAY and teachers tried their hardest EVERYDAY this school year.
While data and conclusions are sure to be published regarding the overall effectiveness of this year, the one thing that I will project is true is that SOME learning took place. To be fair, overall there are likely to be differences in the amount of learning that occurred compared to normal years, but honestly, that is the case every year.
The quality of a teacher is known to have one of the most statistically significant influences on students learning. With that in mind, you better believe that whether the students were in the physical classroom or not, if a teacher tries hard, they still tried hard (likely harder) this year to ensure that students had the same (or better) opportunities to learn.
If there is any reason that learning stopped, it would likely be because a non-school influence swayed someone into allowing their student to stop participating in learning opportunities.
Just because it is different, does not mean it is bad…
The learning environment was very different in the past few years. I am not disputing that in any way. However, to automatically assume that different is bad, is quite a short-sighted assumption.
Teachers perpetually deal with other people trying to influence their teaching style to be “more like it was when (insert person) was in school.” There are a variety of elements that could be unpacked from this quotation, but the one that hangs with me the most deeply is the idea that just because it is different than what someone is familiar with, the “new” way is not as good.
First and foremost, not only is a school very different than when the person who said something like the previous quotation likely went to school, but the world itself is very different. Hence, a teacher’s role is to prepare students for that world that currently and potentially exists. In some instances, foundational SKILLS are exactly the same, the context for their use is DRASTICALLY different.
What this means is, just because a skill is the same, the use of that learned skill could be different. This would then require a different approach to teaching the skills, as its application or the goal of learning ais changed.
My favorite example of this is the vision behind more modern mathematics education that focus lesson on rigid processes and more on number sense.
The general move to a “number sense” approach is designed to help students understand the patterns in mathematics so that they can be applied to a broader application base, not just solve decontextualized number problems, not just solve problems quickly.
Connecting the idea present above to last year’s learning environment is that the notion that just because it wasn’t “the same” as someone else’s experience, doesn’t immediately mean that the experience did not provide value.
This year I was able to reflect and think more thoughtfully about how to evaluate the effectiveness of my lessons, the oversight in ensuring students learned the material, how students can remain connected to myself and their peers, and ultimately how to engage students in productive learning while keeping in mind their physical and mental health.
Each of these elements was present in my (and many other teacher’s) current instructional process. Yet, this year they were more at the forefront of our approach to constructing learning experiences for our students. I can say for me, this resulted in a BETTER learning experience for most students and quite a few of those elements will carry over into my classroom this year.
I will give you one thing for sure…
Things were different. And things that are different do have a learning curve and can be scary as there is much unknown. For clarity, I am not saying this devalues or erases my thoughts above, but is something to consider for an across-the-board evaluation of the success of the learning.
As a teacher who is willing to try new things each year, it is fair to say that some were resounding successes and others were certainly not. This year, every teacher was involved in this process. Sometimes it worked and others it didn’t, and then with that knowledge, we moved on, often resulting in the improvement of some practices.
The expectation that I hold for myself is that I had the opportunity to learn new things last year and it is my responsibility to consider how to implement the things that worked. I had a chance to explore new ways of creating an effective learning environment and now have a chance to take the pre-pandemic classrooms and add elements of a pandemic classroom to make our post-pandemic classrooms the best of both worlds for our students.
We didn’t return to learning, we returned to our classrooms…
The phrase above is what I most hope you take away from this article. You may not be totally on board as to why, but as a teacher who taught through the pandemic, supported other teachers during the pandemic, and watched others teach during the pandemic; I can assure you learning never stopped.
What I can say is that for me, the phrase “Return to Learning” undercuts all the attention, effort, and struggle I placed into my instruction last year. I, and hopefully all teachers, did their very best to provide a valuable educational experience to students in what was for many, one of the more trying times
Regardless of your role in the educational community or culture, I ask for you to take a few extra moments and think about what you are ACTUALLY trying to communicate before you celebrate “Return to Learning” because for students and teachers it never stopped.
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