Wednesday, August 21, 2013

School-year learning loss

I suppose it’s the time of year when we’ll start hearing about “summer learning loss” again, and about how kids “lose so much ground” when they’re away from school for two months. The argument always strikes me as more an indictment of school than of summer vacation. If all that “learning” that we’re cramming into their heads has a shelf-life of less than two months, that doesn’t bode well for what will happen when they’re finally done with school.

There is so much discussion about “retention of learning” over summer break, but it seems like nobody wants to talk about what gets retained into actual adulthood.

The “summer learning loss” vision of education seems awfully questionable, not to mention dismal: as if education is like inflating a raft that has a slow leak, only to launch the leaky thing out on the ocean when schooling is finally done. Is that really how development, change, and growth occur?

Why not start with the recognition that, as adults, what we really know well is usually either (1) something we’re interested in, or (2) something we have to do regularly to function in the world. Look how many people in my generation have extensive computer skills, without ever having learned them in school. Look how many people have encyclopedic knowledge – and often a deep understanding, way beyond just memory of facts and figures – of their favorite sport. Meanwhile, look at how little algebra or trigonometry the average adult knows, despite having sat through it in school and crammed for tests about it.

Why not give kids time, space, and opportunity to pursue subjects they’re interested in? Why not give them the kind of autonomy that will begin to familiarize them with what it takes to function in the world? Funny, that sounds more like summer vacation than like school.

Many parents report that during those first few days of summer break, their kids are bored and at a loss for what to do. The kids aren’t used to having large blocks of time with no one telling them what to do and what to think about, and they aren’t used to making their own choices about how spend that time. Deciding how to spend your time: it’s the central challenge of life, and the activity through which you discover who you are. By mid-summer, the kids have started to get the hang of it, and the boredom dies down. They aren’t necessarily doing anything that looks profound, but it’s usually at least a little unexpected, revealing, or creative – and after all, they’ve only been at it for a few weeks.

Then it all ends, and for ten months they’re back to the forty-five-minute periods, the courses and “units” chosen by others – God forbid your sixth-grader should not study the Industrial Revolution – the “expectations,” and the Common Core Child Improvement Machine. How will they ever make up for those lost ten months?


Unknown said...

I had something interesting happen with my sixth graders this year. Many of them wrote or told me that they were bored by the end of summer.

I'm not sure what it means, but I noticed you noted they're bored at the beginning of summer but didn't say the same about the end of summer.

Chris said...

Russ – Thanks for the comment. I’m sure you’re right, at least about some kids, but if even at the end of summer kids really can’t think of what to do with their time, I don’t think that’s a good state of affairs. I can’t help but wonder if the drinking culture of college isn’t somehow a product of that. (“There’s nothing else to do in this town.”) Life is made up of nothing but time, but it does sometimes seem like a lot of people see their time almost as a burden. I wish school was better at helping kids find fulfilling interests and passions, but I’m afraid it’s just making the time go by.

FedUpMom said...

Wow, Chris, sometimes it's as if you're inside my head. I've been thinking many of the same things in regard to Older Daughter's upcoming homeschool year. All of a sudden we're confronted by a school-year's worth of time. How can we spend it?

I want to see Older Daughter interested and engaged in the world. I want her to find fulfilling interests and passions.

The problem is that people find their passions within a context; within a culture and a community. I see my job as knitting together the culture and community that will give Older Daughter that context.

This doesn't happen automatically. At least where we live, there's really not much of a community that happens naturally. You have to make it happen.

Unknown said...


I think FedUpMom nailed it here:

The problem is that people find their passions within a context; within a culture and a community.

Have you read much about the CAPS program Waukee has recommended to our board?

We have to be specific about building the contexts for young folks to find and pursue their passions.

Chris said...

FedUpMom and Russ -- thanks! I agree that people can't develop their passions in a vacuum, though I don't think school is the only model for providing culture and community (as I know FedUpMom, who is homeschooling one daughter, must already think). Community is important, but it doesn't follow that the best model is to be in a room with lots of other people all day long.

Russ -- I took a look at that link, but I found it awfully hard to get past the edu-speak. Can you describe what the program is actually doing?

Unknown said...

Hi, Chris,

Re: CAPS: I think Dr. Wilkerson's quotes summarize it pretty well.

“Students will earn both high school and college credit, giving them a jump-start on their postsecondary work. They will gain experience beyond the traditional classroom, get the hands-on experiential learning colleges value, solve real-world problems that impact our business partners bottom line and future success, and apply classroom knowledge to real-world situations,” David J. Wilkerson, Ph.D., Superintendent of Waukee Schools said.

“CAPS will provide junior and senior students with real-world experiences in corporate settings, where they can learn and develop skills in high-demand local corporate environments.”

If there's something specific in there that is too jargony, I can help explain it, but perhaps the original CAPS site from Blue Valley would be more useful:

Re: "Community is important but..." Have you read The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith?

I think it would be right up your alley.