Lost Learning: Educational gaps caused by coronavirus

By ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist Stephen Rollett

Quite rightly there has been a lot of discussion about lost learning and gaps caused by the coronavirus. Schools have been doing some amazing work via their remote learning provision, but we know that many children will not have flourished away from the routines and pedagogy of the classroom. With children having already lost many weeks of normal classroom teaching time, and with this expected to continue for some time yet, it is right that teachers are aware that gaps in learning may be one of the legacies of this awful virus.

Of course, the likelihood is that it is our disadvantaged pupils, and those with specific needs, who will suffer these effects most. 

However, there are a few things we need to be mindful of as conversations in different education settings, in part promoted by the phased reopening of schools and colleges, turn increasingly towards educational gaps.
  1. The language of ‘gap’ tends by nature to be the language of deficit. This might be the reality in educational terms. However, we ought to remind ourselves that the terminology we use as professionals might mean something different to children and parents. It might also mean something different to different teachers. In some subjects these gaps will manifest more problematically than in others.  I’m not suggesting we don’t talk about ‘gaps’ as part of our professional discourse, but we should think carefully about the language we use so as not to exacerbate anxiety or confusion. We want teachers and pupils to have a sense of precision in their understanding of what they do/don’t know, not a sense of panic or a mountain they can’t climb. Remember, they haven’t learned it…yet. 
  2. Focus on low-stakes assessment. The identification of what pupils do/don’t know will be an important focus. However, this does not necessarily mean that upon returning to school or college, pupils will need to sit a lot of formal ‘tests’ across a wide range of subjects. Equally, it needn’t mean that no assessments can go on. Rather, we need to think about the approach that best suits the age of the pupils and the nature of the subject, while being mindful of the individual and cumulative picture for pupils. In many cases, teachers would be well advised to use low-stakes quizzes, small group conversations and good old Q&A to find out what pupils do/don’t know. The sense of urgency is understandable but that needn’t translate into high stakes for pupils. 
  3. Look for patterns. It’s not inconceivable that there will be common areas of the curriculum that pupils have understood well, or poorly. Work to address this could be done at whole class level rather than individually, such as using whole-class feedback where appropriate.
  4. Which gaps matter most? Teachers should prioritise the things they think matter most in curricular terms. These might be threshold concepts or particular  things pupils need to know or be able to do fluently. It might be unhelpful to expect pupils will have learned everything they’ve done remotely, depending on the work that was set. Teachers know some issues will be short term and easier to address, others may be longer term and require more explicit attention. So, teachers need to consider what matters most.
  5. So what? This is perhaps the most important question. The reason teachers need to know what pupils do/don’t know is not so they can record it on a spreadsheet. It’s so they can adjust their teaching and the curriculum accordingly. Therefore, assessing for formative purposes is going to be more important than spending a lot of time collating summative judgements from teachers. Dylan Wiliam’s notion of ‘responsive teaching’ has never been more important than at the current time. Partly because of the legacy of our accountability system, we can fall into the trap of only seeing gaps in terms of how they manifest in the summative records we keep, such as ‘working at’ grades, spreadsheets, or flightpaths. When this happens, we can lose sight of what those gaps really are: specific components and composites from the curriculum. We need to make these the focus.  With regards to the disadvantage gap, we know that disadvantaged pupils lose out most when teaching quality is not strong, but we also know they benefit most when the standard of teaching for all pupils is good. This suggests the most important way for schools and colleges to close academic gaps as they recover from COVID-19 will be to focus on the day-in-day-out quality of teaching for all pupils.
Essentially, all of the above are about high-quality assessment practice. If we are talking about gaps without also talking about quality curriculum, assessment and responsive teaching then the likelihood is that we’re less likely to close the very gaps we identify, or not identify them at all. Of course, all of the above will run alongside and be supported by the very important work schools and colleges are doing to support the wellbeing and safety of pupils.

Finally, until the scientific evidence says otherwise, it is plausible that there might be further developments and phases of lockdown. Which means we may need to revisit what pupils do/don’t know. So, any ‘baseline’ or judgements you draw might need to be revised. Keep this in mind.

But then again, that it is the nub of effective assessment and teaching practice; it’s ongoing and responsive. Accordingly, it is arguably more helpful to see this talk of ‘spotting gaps’ as the ongoing work of teachers, made more important than ever by COVID-19, rather than a one-off intervention or strategy. And these things will become easier to do, as and when, education returns to a more normal state. 

ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist Steve Rollett. 

The Team ASCL Webinar on 20 May will focus on the recent DfE guidance for Years 10 and 12. ASCL members will receive a link to join this webinar from 18 May in the daily briefing newsletters. 
Posted: 15/05/2020 10:53:14