/ 26 July 2020

Children will learn under lockdown

Graphic Edu Learning Twitter
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


If a student in any programme, at whatever level, does not work on the curriculum, it is a given that there will be a loss of learning. In the long summer holidays in the United States, this is known colloquially as the “summer slump”. It is inevitable that, around the world, there will be a pandemic slump. It is not easy to make peace with that. 

What all the partners in the education project worldwide have learned has yet to be established. My guess is that we have learned a lot.

Yes, it is hard to search for hopeful signs that the children and youth have not lost out on learning during the lockdowns necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is as hard not to fall into a state of depression and cynicism about the state of learning today. Yet, recent research has shown that one way of addressing this scary reality, is to get facts. Timeous research is crucial. 

An example of such timeous action during the past four months has been the rapid response of the group of researchers led by Nic Spaull, of the Research on Socioeconomic Policy group at Stellenbosch University. At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, they immediately started an inquiry. They wanted to find out what has been happening in the daily lives of a sample of 7 000 households.

As a researcher who is used to small-scale studies and extended planning and never-ending funding applications, I was struck by the efficacy and speed with which this group did the work. They got many researched papers out in record time. I was thankful that they made all their work available right away. In the era of open science, that is what we should seek to do. 

In one of their future rounds of telephonic interviews with the sample of participants, I hope they will ask families how much time has been spent on the children’s schoolwork at home. I assume that little may have been done at homes where there has not been enough food on the table. I find it hard to imagine how children who are hungry, with other family members who may also be hungry, would find the strength to attend to schoolwork. The curriculum has probably not been on the table.

So, I started asking my postgraduate students about this issue during our many Zoom and WhatsApp video chats. (This is the way dissertation and thesis supervision are conducted these days.) Most of my students are teachers. 

They all say that they don’t expect families to have coped with the brief of continuing with the school curriculum at home — not even a semblance of it, some said. 

I assume that learning loss will be real. Of course, middle class families with adequate internet connection and with tech devices, along with adult supervision, plus enough food on the table, do not fall in the same category of learning loss. Some such privileged young learners may even have benefitted from being self-regulating and being personally responsible for their online progress. 

Some online tutoring is truly excellent. I see this with primary school children in my family and with friends’ offspring in high school. They are literally feasting on Coursera courses and any learning platform they can get to on their keyboards and touch screens. They are hungry for knowledge. They have more than enough food on their family tables. 

The learning loss for children who are not connected, and who may go hungry on some days, is a different matter. The rising curve of their loss is real and steep. For families with no additional learning material, except the worksheets and other teacher artefacts that schools may have sent home with children in March, learning according to the curriculum is unlikely to have progressed much. 

The schools I know sent material, prepared rather hurriedly, home with their learners. The teachers were hopeful that it would mitigate the learning loss. 

Still, there is no way of knowing what transpired in the minds of millions of school-goers until we eventually see what they have retained and what they have added to their knowledge when we get to post-pandemic times. Curriculum-wise, they are more than likely to have fallen behind. Our curriculum is very strictly structured to time-on-teaching tasks.

But, in tough times, who knows what young minds can imagine? It is a hallmark of our species that we are curious and that we have an underlying drive to learn and to solve problems and to withstand challenges. That is why we evolved in the way we did. Yuval Harari, the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, wrote about how we, the Homo sapiens, became the thinking species. Being the thinkers on the planet, we are also strongly inclined to teach. According to a leading cognitive neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene, we are the irrepressible teaching species — the Homo docens. Humans have a drive to teach, whether we are professional teachers, a grandfather with children around him in a village or a grandmother standing in as a locum at a daycare centre in town.

In families and communities, curriculum-based teaching itself may have come to a halt, but who knows what everyday learning may have taken place. Just learning about how to conduct ourselves during the pandemic is a continuous learning experience; in households, family members teach one another many new skills, some of which are learning to be considerate, forgiving and increasingly caring, patient and kind. These are also traits for cooperative learning, which is part and parcel of 21st century living and working.

Those are skills that machines cannot yet give us. In his new book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better than any Machine … for Now, Dehaene makes the case for understanding the miracle of the human brain for education purposes. He emphasises the plasticity of the brain, especially in children. The capacity for cerebral adaptation is unlimited. But human brains consist of more than the cerebral cortex. 

In some way then, children may be able to catch up what they have lost in curriculum learning over time and with good planning by their teachers and school management teams. I bet that what they have learned about living in harmony in hard times, will be one of their prized learning outcomes when they look back on their childhood and youth.

The flattening of the learning loss curve will happen at some point, but with this may come a rise in the curve about how to be a good human.