The Oregon Department of Education’s (ODE) message is that student learning is “unfinished, not lost.” Why does this narrative shift matter, and how will it make a difference for children?
We need to shift the way we think about children as abundantly ready for the learning that they're going to do next. When we recognize that learning happens everywhere, we can see our children are full of capacity.
When we think about it any other way, we’re more likely to come alongside children from a deficit perspective and deem them to be ‘behind’ or ‘failing’ or not yet proficient. This ‘gap-gazing’ tendency often happens with our Indigenous, Latinx, and Black children, and fixates on what our kids can't do. They’re held to a standard or compared to a dominant value that fails to capture ways that they have assets, skills, and talents far beyond what we're primed and ready to measure.
Without question, there are areas where children will need a lot of nurture and care and attentiveness. There will need to be incredible focus on getting children back into the practice and experiences of traditional academic subjects. Some have asked, “Does this mean that kids don’t need to learn how to read?” Of course not. We don’t want to gloss over that.
The way we typically respond to children that need additional practice or skills is to remove them from the rich learning nest of the classroom. It's driven by a theory of action that if you sort and assess children by skill, and then do something different for the kids who are ‘behind,’ they'll get what they need. However, what we find is the opposite: Children who are treated differently will feel differently, behave differently, learn less, and get pushed out of our system. So often, it’s our Indigenous children, our Latinx children, our children of color, or our families navigating poverty who are pushed out.
This stigma erodes children’s souls and pecks away at their own identity as a learner, which becomes very hard to restore. That identity the taproot of what children need most to do the hard cognitive work of learning, such as how to read, think about what they're reading, and write in response to what they've read.
We really need to tend to the conditions of learning that are so fundamental for our children and will be ever more important in the coming year. The children are whole, and our job is to help them understand who they are, what they can do, and to build from there. Then they can do the lifting and the stretching and the growing and the learning.
How can a change in language lead to a change in practice and outcomes?
My practice as a teacher was shaped by Peter Johnston’s work about how language frames learning. I recognized that the words I chose were like the Lego bricks of the house I was able to build with children. If I pick the wrong Lego brick, it wouldn't click in the right way and we wouldn't be able to co-construct something that we felt equally proud of. It takes a lot more words and time to say what you really mean and in a way that tends to identity, belonging, culture, and care.
If you apply this approach to the way we talk about learning in Oregon, the same is true. We have to practice a deliberate apprenticeship, replacing our mindset and our language with different words and different constructs. It takes a lot of intentional undoing and patterning, but language is one of the most fundamental places to start. What words are we going to choose? What mental models do those words represent? How we use language can create different energy and different experiences for ourselves as educators and for the children that we care for and teach.
How have you seen the conversation around ‘learning loss’ shifting in Oregon?
In the spring, it seemed like everything we were reading had a headline about ‘learning loss.’ At ODE, we really wanted to fuel reflection and inquiry around this dominant narrative because we're always trying to re-examine the assumptions that underlie our work.
With Student Learning: Unfinished, Not Lost, our goal is to interrupt this narrative and discourage practices like grade retention. We hope this resource helps educators, principals, superintendents, and district-level leaders in Oregon find a different way to think and talk about how we support students. We’ve been excited to see deeper discourse around what our children need most in the coming year: What conditions are we committed to cultivating so that our children come back into a system that feels different and creates opportunity for them to sprout and grow? It's up to us all to get it right so they're able to continue in their educational journey.