January 29, 2022

Barth Keck: Is “Learning Loss” Real or a Function of America’s Need for Speed?

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Teacher and writer Barth Keck considers the possibility that Learning Loss panic is coming from something other than a real concern for education.

“The damage to a generation of children’s social development and educational attainment, and particularly to the social mobility prospects of its most marginalized members, will be irrecoverable,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York magazine.

Damage? At some level, yes. Irrecoverable? Maybe a bit over the top.

The Great Depression was likely damaging to millions of children — especially the “most marginalized” — but history shows that most of them recovered, even prospered, when they participated in the post-war economic boom, the greatest in American history.

Even as I find Chait’s prediction regarding America’s COVID children hyperbolic, I think he’s missing a more important point — a point, in fact, that most people don’t consider when denouncing learning loss: America is simply obsessed with speed.

“Speed is creating a new world that transforms what we do, what we value, and, more important, who we are,” writes Mark C. Taylor in his 2014 book Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left. “As acceleration accelerates, our very sense of reality morphs. The unquestioned faith in the New Age is that faster is always better and the quick inherit the earth.”

Taylor’s book, one I hadn’t read in several years, was rekindled in my mind as I read news story after news story about learning loss: Remote learning would set kids back years. Summers off had been detrimental to children’s education well before the pandemic. Schools would need to offer remedial education beyond regular classroom time to get students back on track.

To be clear, I don’t disavow the disadvantages of remote learning and the subsequent learning loss that might occur — whatever “learning loss” really means. Kids learn best when they’re in the classroom with a qualified teacher. For the record, that is exactly what’s been happening at my school since August of 2020, despite another of Jonathan Chait’s exaggerated claims that “the failed experiment [of remote learning] finally came to an end in the fall of 2021.” But the laser focus that public-school detractors continue to place on learning loss only accentuates the need-for-speed mentality.

“As acceleration accelerates, individuals, societies, economies, and even the earth that sustains us approach meltdown,” explains Mark C. Taylor. “Faster is not always better … Rather than improving life, acceleration creates a pervasive sense of anxiety. Anxiety, unlike fear, has no definite object or source; it reflects a profound unease that results from insecurities that cannot be precisely identified and can never be mastered.”

And if adults become increasingly anxious, kids become exceedingly anxious, and learning loss becomes the least of our worries.

Excerpts don’t do this well-constructed essay justice. Read here for the whole piece.

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