Learning, as difficult as it can be has a very simple definition — the persistence of knowledge overtime. However, the definition’s three pieces: persistence, knowledge, and overtime lead to muddied ideas of when and how learning occurs.
At the end of a school year, ask a teacher what learning is and how he knows it has occurred and you’re sure to get a different response than that of a child, a parent, or a state funding agency.
As students across the country begin soaking up the summer sun, a familiar concern is brought to light — what happens to student learning in the summer?
The answer is as varied as the definition of learning. There is a general consensus that by summer’s end students are behind 1 month in learning gains (typically measured by comparing test scores from the previous spring with the current fall in subjects like reading and math). Research has also revealed differences in learning loss and gain depending on characteristics like race, socioeconomic status, and age.
Minnesota Public Radio News recently dedicated an hour to the dip in summer learning, known as the summer slide (1). A panel of educators provided honest and informative content, however, the scope of their comments seemed to miss the psychological perspective of learning and memory.
I decided to take a look at current research in educational psychology. Here are some take-aways to develop learning in the summer and YEAR ROUND.
It is about of RESOURCES. Learning dips are often determined by socioeconomic status (SES). High SES students tend to avoid a summer slip and low SES students fall further behind. Consider what a typical summer might be like depending on resources.
Who goes to camp, museums, or possibly vacations to far-away places?
Who has access to day-time educational programs?
The same MPR program noted above found that high SES families spend about $5,000 on summer activities! These same students may miss out on additional opportunities during the school year because they are working after school or are not encouraged to join out-of-school activities.
It is about ACCESS. Researchers emphasize the need for access to knowledge rich resources over the summer (programs, technology, and books). The journal, Urban Education (2) uses the term “book deserts” to indicate living areas where children have limited to no access to books.
It is about MOTIVATION. Students need to be filled with curiosity and drive YEAR ROUND so that they can pursue resources. Consider a small child who loves searching for bugs or a youth who can tell you encyclopedic-quality baseball statistics. Students’ curiosity is silenced because of their environment. Love of learning can also be squashed during the school year by an academic focus on “test scores are best.”
It is about SHARING. Funding for community programs is limited and cannot address the needs of all students. If you are a student, reach out to a friend who may benefit from an invite to play and learn at a museum for a day. Parents and informed adults, help spread the word of camps and enrichment programs that could benefit an acquaintance. When you enroll your child, find out if you can make a donation to fund another student.
There is a need to go beyond attention-getting changes in learning trends and focus on what is being learned during the SCHOOL YEAR.
It is about SKILLS. We should broaden our definition of learning and learning focus from a score gap to a skill gap.
Educators and administrators need to rethink learning. How do we prepare students for future success? Yes, assessments of fundamentals in reading are important. No less so are skills like:
Curiosity, motivation, empathy, kindness, critical thinking, communication, wellness, life skills, and study skills (3). How are these being learned? Don’t they often get kicked aside as soft skills because they are difficult to measure?
Teams of educators must focus on equal access to education in the scope of what LEARNING should look like. After all, when many of our historically academic skills are automatized, we may never replace distinctly human abilities to create, relate, and be empathetic (4).
- Angela Davis (Host). (2019). How to help your students avoid the ‘summer slide’ [Radio series episode]. With Karen Zamora (Executive producer), MPR News with Angela Davis. St. Paul, MN: MPR.org.
- Neuman, S. B. & Moland, N. (2019). Book Deserts: The Consequences of Income Segregation on Children’s Access to Print. Urban Education, 54(1), 126-147