Justin Reich is an education and technology researcher and the director of MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. He hosts a podcast called TeachLab which recently finished a series of episodes that he titled “Subtraction in Action”, which explored the benefits and the methods to do more by first doing less.
This is not a universally popular idea in education. A popular topic in education circles is the concept of “wraparound services” in schools. The idea is to provide social services besides education, especially in the area of mental health, the fundamentals of which were outlined in a defining paper by Barbra Burns and Sybil Goldman in 1999. It is understandable why this concept might gain some support, teachers are often in a place to see potential mental health struggles and understand what the needs might be to support students. And possibly more surprising, teachers are eager for the funding to do something like this.
But as Dr. Reich points out, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to put that kind of pressure on teachers. There is already a healthy body of literature available about the amount of pressure put on first year teachers and the negative affect that can have.Teachers join the profession because they expect a lot of themselves, the institutions tend to encourage this kind of thinking because it can lead to more “free” work, and then they feel frustrated when they are not able to live up to their own hopes for the possibility to change every student’s life.
This was doubled during and after the coronavirus pandemic. The policy drum of learning loss is beaten with such regularity and almost every solution is for teachers and schools to do more, teach more, work harder, to make up for all of the learning that was lost. But for Justin Reich, at least, this is not necessarily an optimal solution.
When discussing learning loss, the data that people have begun pointing to is the NAEP scores. We discussed the debate around what exactly they mean, but Dr. Reich makes an especially strong point when discussing conclusions drawn from the scores.
“Did anyone come out with a different policy suggestion based on the NAEP scores, or did everyone look at them and say whatever they were saying beforehand?”
The learning loss exposed by the NAEP scores certainly hits on an area that is almost universally agreed upon to be important. Math and reading learning in elementary and middle school is usually seen as some of the more important learning that happens at school. But it is far from the only learning that happens at school and even in the pandemic, there was some learning that no one was even measuring before: technology mediated communication.
“There’s an enormous amount of learning that happens in schools and we shine these very narrow spotlights on it…We traded some reading and math for some technology mediated communication”.
Dr. Reich is not saying this is ideal, since ideally there would be learning in all of these areas, but he does point out that it is not as bad as if we had traded that math and reading for no learning at all.
The pandemic exposed a weakness in our educational institutions, it is particularly fragile to disruptions which remove access to the physical location that school takes place in.
“The changes of the climate emergency are going to lead to more interrupted schooling… and that is terribly sad, but it is a thing that we are system-wide better at”
Learning to function in this kind of a state is difficult, and even though we are better at it, we are far from perfect. It has been a burden on teachers and administrators to coordinate how to teach during the pandemic. And Dr. Reich points out “If you want to add something [for schools to do], there is something you have to take away.”
During the pandemic what was “taken away” was not planned but instead what was simply difficult to teach at the same level. The NAEP scores and other metrics have exposed the reduced math and reading learning that occurred. It is not what almost anyone would have chosen to subtract, but it is clear that something must be subtracted off of teachers’ plates if we want to regain the same kind of learning, even during periods of interrupted schooling.
What specifically needs to be subtracted and how should technology fill in the gaps? That is a harder question. What needs to be subtracted is often better known by teachers than by administrators who would actually be in charge of making the cuts. But the ways that technology can help is almost as difficult a question to answer.
The technologies that really made a difference during the pandemic were not vast changes to the way students are taught, but mostly administrative technologies. “In the pandemic we basically adopted at scale two of our oldest, most familiar technologies; Learning Management Systems and Zoom”. And that is not for lack of trying.
Any number of products stepped up during the pandemic, sometimes promising to be a silver bullet to the woes of pandemic learning. But as Dr. Reich says “there’s nothing out there that has good evidence of disproportionately strong impact on things”, but instead technology can fit in as a tool. It can find problems and be part of some of the solutions that are proposed.
“We have chronic absenteeism… What are some classroom solutions, what are some out of school solutions, and where does technology fit in to meet that goal?”
Where EdTech fits in these goals is still up in the air, but the continued focus on evidence based results is a good path forward. So long as the trends of conglomeration in the industry don’t lead to huge films having more power, the same way it has in the consumer tech world.
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