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Why we’re all hearing about ‘accelerating learning’ as in-person school resumes

By July 13, 2021No Comments

The phrase “learning loss” came under criticism shortly after it started being used to describe what students experienced as a result of remote and hybrid learning during the last 18 months. With the pandemic already exacerbating a long list of educational inequities, the thinking goes, the last thing kids need is to be told they have lost something that it was not in their power to gain.

I’m among those who think the phrase “learning loss,” along with its purported solution, “remediation,” can cause more problems than they solve. They epitomize deficit thinking, which can be perceived as accusatory by those on the receiving end—an impediment to engagement that can lead students and families to turn their backs on school. There’s also ample evidence that remediation is terrible at helping students learn and progress. This is why we’ve all been hearing about “accelerating learning” lately.

Accelerating learning isn’t about rushing or selecting “power standards,” although there are certainly elements of time and refinement involved. In remediation, the clock stops—students (theoretically) get another chance to catch up to the performance level that’s normally expected of them. By accelerating learning, the school recognizes that whatever level the student is at right now is their level. Rather than dwell on what the student doesn’t know, we start with what they do know in relation to our identified key understandings and go from there.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because there’s barely any daylight between accelerating learning and personalized learning, a longstanding and widely held aspiration among educators. While it would be convenient if all students learned the same things at the same pace, that’s not reality. Reality is that to one degree or another, every student is at a different place in their learning journey from every other student. It should be we educators who adapt to meet students’ needs, not vice-versa.

Our partners in schools, districts, and service agencies are concerned about what’s going to happen when students who did well in online learning are back in class with those who didn’t. What we’re advising is that the traditional response—segregating the catcher-uppers from the already-theres—just isn’t going to help. So what will?

At McREL we’re redoubling our commitment to the brain science-based strategy that we call the Six-Phase Model for Student Learning and to the evidence-based practices that support each phase of learning. You can learn more about it in many of our books and PD events (here’s an example), but it boils down to recognizing that, while the amount of things we can learn is infinite, the ways we learn them are predictable, based on the way the human brain works. When teachers know how to support information to travel from sensory input to immediate memory to working memory and then into to long-term memory, they can select appropriate research-based practices to help students form connections with content and their own learning that can not only get them through the next round of testing, but set them up to become lifelong learners.

Succeeding at accelerating learning means thinking deeply about students’ needs—and encouraging them to do likewise—so just banish the thought right now that there’s anything quick or easy about it. I agree with the writings of Carol Ann Tomlinson, who advocates for designing classroom learning and activities that allow students to demonstrate their level of mastery, their way. That means that one student may read a book, another may conduct an online exploration, and a third may listen to a presentation on the same subject. They can each choose how they want to demonstrate their learning too, so that could mean one writes a report, another records a video presentation, and the third creates a visual representation of what they have learned.

And of course assessing these diverse artifacts requires more effort than holding an answer key next to a worksheet and going √, √, x, x, √, √, √. Teachers and students alike need to be clear on the essential understandings that a lesson is going to explore, not be rigid about going through any predetermined set of motions or processes.

Now that I’ve hinted at how thoughtful and intentional we must be when planning for accelerating learning, let me concede that there is, in fact, one way in which the strategy can potentially conserve time, and this is by giving you the liberty to jettison the kitchen-sink approach you may have been taking to curriculum. The legislature, the school board, and the administration have all done their part—now you and your fellow teachers need to become the local experts on precisely what students must know, understand, and be able to do aligned to grade level standards. If you’re using materials, resources, or activities that don’t directly contribute to these goals, set them aside.

Pullout interventions may be appropriate for students with specific learning needs, but not for the student whose only problem is they don’t know as much as the curriculum wants them to—yet. Meet your students where they are, tell them how glad you are they’re back, and let the learning commence!

Tonia Gibson, M.S.L., a managing consultant at McREL International, works with teachers, schools, districts, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable plans for improving the professional practices of teachers and school leaders. Through consulting and coaching for individuals and groups, she works with partners to develop strategic pathways to improve educator capacities and provides technical assistance to support teachers and leaders in developing effective practices, ensuring student needs are at the heart of all decisions made. Ms. Gibson is committed to developing sustainable practices and improving the capacities of school and district staff. She understands that every school and district has its own unique culture, and her work ensures that plans and strategies are tailored to the capacities and needs of the district staff members, school administrators, teachers, and students with whom she works. She is a co-author of Unstuck: How Curiosity, Peer Coaching, and Teaming Can Change Your School (2018) and Learning that Sticks (2020).

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.