Authors: Emma Nälsund-Hadley & Noam Angrist
Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) school systems are enduring a challenge to learning and skill development without precedent. No other region in the world, has lost as many school days.
Throughout the region, education experts agree on the importance of urgently tackling the COVID-19 learning slide, taking on the challenge of helping students recover the learning lost during school closings. At the same time, there is less agreement on what to do to make that happen. One common policy response had been grade repetition. But this policy might not guarantee learning recovery. If the pedagogical approach is maintained, repeating a grade might not help. So, what can be done to recover learning loss?
- There is scant evidence that grade retention alone works. The logic behind grade retention is that a child who did not master 5th grade skills and concepts, clearly would not be able to master 6th grade course work. Already pre-pandemic, the problem was that a student who did not master the skills and concepts the first time it’s taught, likely won’t master it by receiving the same instruction a second time. It is far more likely that what the student needs is a targeted support that better addresses individual learning needs. If grade retention is used as a response to the COVID learning slide, socio-economic and racial gaps would inevitably widen. Students from low socio-economic groups would be held back, while their higher income group peers (who had greater access to remote learning resources during 2020 and 2021 school closures) would progress. Students who are held back without additional support risk falling and staying behind, delayed school completion, and decades of research warn that grade-retention increases a student’s risk of dropping out of school.
2. Adaptive instruction that tackles vast learning gaps of an entire generation of students. Models such as Teaching at the Right Level engage all students, targeting instruction to each child’s level. This can be particularly effective at remediating learning loss for children furthest behind, while also benefitting all students. For example, children who can read a word, are next taught to read a sentence, and students who can read a paragraph are next taught to read a story – each child progressing and attaining foundational skills. This approach differs from some models of remedial classes where students might always do below grade level work and thus never catch up, which could widen gaps between students being remedied and their grade-level peers. When done in targeted and adaptive fashion, remediation can enable attainment of foundational skills and in some cases full catch up to and beyond grade-level material.
3. Accelerate learning in addition to remediating it. Accelerated learning is not teaching the same curriculum at a faster speed. Accelerated learning allows students to learn grade-level content with just-in-time support. The approach focuses on preparing students for the mastery of upcoming grade-level content and skill development. Rather than seeking to cover the entire spectrum of lost content, accelerated learning provides targeted support on specific foundational skills and concepts, which is aligned with current grade-level instruction. Sometimes acceleration means going slower. For example, a 7th grade algebra unit may take 30 instead of 20 lessons to allow for just-in-time support and scaffolding for the development of essential skills needed to reach the grade-level learning goals.
4. Learning does not always need to be linear. The development of competencies occurs at different times, in different ways, and with different supports for different learners. Yet, most LAC curricula are designed in a linear fashion, based on the idea that there is a correct sequence in which all skills need to be taught. You must master the basics, prior to engage in deep learning. Although some skill development require sequence (such as learning all the letter sounds for phonemic awareness), many skills really can be learnt ‘out of sequence.’ It does not matter if estimates are taught before or after polygons, nor if the earth’s layers are studied before or after animal cells. Acceleration works precisely because learning is not linear. Instead the approach is based in the logic of nonlinear curricula.
5. Some accelerated models use technology to provide tailored support. The COVID-19 learning slide has prompted some school systems to explore models that use technology for tailormade support. An example is MATHia which uses artificial intelligence to provide targeted support to students. Evidence on the effectiveness of technology-powered accelerated learning models is also emerging from some low- and middle-income countries.In Botswana, elementary-grade students received low-tech interventions during school pandemic-related school closures of foundational skills mapped to grade-level learning and targeted support for individualized and adaptive instruction. The model is now being tested in five additional countries (with additional trials to soon be launched in LAC), providing a mixture of remedial, as well as accelerated learning support aligned with grade-level instruction.
6. Let’s not to go back to how we did things pre-pandemic. The LAC education systems were conceived before neurological and educational research revealed how children develop skills and conceptual understandings. Rather than going back to the pre-pandemic organization of learning, let’s use this critical juncture to lay the foundations for a new way of teaching, building on the understanding that children learn critical skills and concepts at different pace, and require different types of support at different times in the learning process. Carefully targeted support, remote or face-to-face, to help each student master foundational skills and achieve grade-level competencies is possible.
This week, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) brings together top-level education policy makers from across LAC for a regional dialogue meeting to explore how to handle the unfinished learning from the past two academic years.
Let us know your thoughts in the comment section! What can LAC education systems do to close gaps on a massive scale? What possibilities can you imagine for accelerated learning in your school or education system?