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Why there’s no such thing as lost learning

James Williams, writing in TES:

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. 

My sister works as a primary-school teacher, so I've had a glimpse into the unnecessary stress on everybody in the education system due to this persistent narrative.

Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon, but the pandemic has served to highlight both the pressure to return to 'normal' schooling and the alternative ways in which education can be delivered.

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.

It's not a surprise to be that the calls to reopen schools and gets kids back into classrooms has mostly come from politicians. Over the last few decades, successive governments have seems more concerned with moving our education system away from public control and accountability and toward for-profit schooling than they have children's futures. And 'reforms' of the examination system have only served to pressurise both children and teachers.

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”.

For all the talk of 'life-long learning' and 'continuous personal development', the reality these days is 'for those who can afford it, and screw the rest'. This needs to change, both in government (local and central) and business.

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