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All three of my kids have missed a significant number days because of the need to quarantine. The Omicron variant is sweeping through our neighborhoods and our local school district recently created a no-contact day this last Friday.

Many caregivers and community members are concerned about learning loss with the missed days on top of the virtual learning schedule from last year. A friend of mine said, “I feel like my daughter is falling behind and I don’t even know how to help her.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments at the university level as professors share concerns about incoming freshman who seem to lack some of the prerequisite knowledge that they’ll need in order to access the content.

And yet . . . I’m not terribly concerned about learning loss. Don’t get me wrong. I think learning loss is real and we should try to address it. However, when I visit classrooms or work with the teachers in my cohort, I see bigger concerns than learning loss. Often, the biggest issue seems to be the lack of soft skills or the absence of student self-direction in their learning. In this article, we explore the idea that speed might actually be overrated and examine how factors like soft skills, stickiness, play, and self-direction might help students prepare for an unpredictable world.

Learning is about more than just speed and accuracy.Listen to the Podcast

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Speed Isn’t Everything

As a student, I hated math because I was slow at it. To this day, I’m still low computational fluency. It takes me longer than most folks to do math in my head. I second-guess myself when I am engaging in basic multiplication and division. I am not a typical “numbers person.” I struggle with memorizing dates and I often transpose numbers when I have to remember a string of them. Two-factor authorization has been an absolute nightmare for me.

I have every reason to hate math. But I don’t. I actually love math precisely because I am slow at it. I can meander. I can ask tons of questions with data. I can play around with math. As a child, I felt a sense of dread whenever I would do those timed tests. I’d start sweating the moment the teacher passed out the handouts. Years later, I have all the time in the world and I can treat math like a long hike or a breezy drive in the summer.

Battling against my own math anxiety was tough but coming through it, I think it has made me more curious and more humble with the subject. I can second guess myself. Being less sure that I have the right answer has helped me find trends in a data set that I might have easily missed. I struggled with advanced statistics but that struggle kept me focused and curious. I developed a mindset of slower thinking that allowed me to catch some critical unexpected insights in my doctoral research on project-based learning and teacher motivation.

By contrast, I was a fast reader with a really high comprehension level as a student. Even now, when I listen to an audiobook, my natural inclination is to push that sucker up to a 1.5x speed. However, if I’m not careful, I will sprint through all reading. Speed has served me well. I can consume and retain a significant amount of written information. However, speed has sometimes backfired. If I’m not careful, I will miss some critical details. I move into auto-pilot and stop thinking critically about a particular passage or line of thought.

In school, I internalized a message that being good at a subject was about speed and accuracy (fluency) but I missed the reality that mastering a subject is also about slower, deeper work with experimental attempts.

In other words, being slow has its advantages.

The Need for Slower Thinking

While it’s hard to predict the future, many of our students will need to engage in slower, deeper work. They will work on projects that take weeks or even months to accomplish. They’ll need to find unique solutions that require divergent thinking. Computers do an amazing job of quickly analyzing data and running through tasks accurately. Meanwhile, the human mind, while slower than the computer, is able to think creatively. We can dream up new possibilities and engage in the functional novelty that AI still struggles to attain. We can move beyond pre-programmed tasks and think creatively:

However, if our students are going to engage in in complex creative thinking, they will need to have longer, sustained periods of deep focus.  Deep work is an especially relevant skill in a distracted world, where we can get sucked smaller task that divert our attention. We live in a world of  instant media, where the constant pinging from our devices beckons us from one urgent task to the next. If we want them to become makers and philosophers and researchers, they need to have the mental endurance to stick with a task long-term.

This is a concept that Cal Newport refers to as “deep work” in his landmark book by the same name (it’s a great read that I highly recommend). It’s what happens when you delve into meaningful, sustained work that requires full cognitive attention. Newport argues that the constant interruptions of email and social media reduce our attention while also increasing cognitive load. This ultimately reduces our ability to get into deep work.

When students engage in deep, meaningful, sustained work, they are more likely to hit a state of flow:

In other words, while the school system continues to value speed and accuracy, our students will often need to work more slowly and think outside the box. If A.I. is the proverbial hare, our students will need to succeed as tortoises.

Content Knowledge Still Matters

While learning is about more than just speed and accuracy, our content still matters. We need students to learn how to read and write. We need them to learn how to think like scientists and historians and mathematicians and artists and musicians. We all have curriculum maps to follow and standards to teach. The truth is that learning loss is real and we can’t pretend that it doesn’t matter at all.

However, it can help to ask, “What do students need in the long run?” instead of focusing entirely on single learning standards or benchmark test results. In other words, yes, learning loss is real, but the bigger question is “What is the ultimate goal of learning and are students learning that?” If the goal is curiosity or creativity and they lose a sense of wonder, I’d argue that’s a bigger learning loss than the failure to factor polynomials. If it’s to prepare students for the future we need to recognize that our future is wildly unpredictable and our curriculum maps alone won’t get students where they need to be.

Many districts have developed graduate profiles that center on bigger life-long essential skills. I’ve had the honor of working with many districts who are asking, “What does it mean to teach the standards while also developing these key skills?” Instead of focusing solely on the learning loss, the focus is on helping students develop key soft skills while mastering the standards where they might be falling behind. But what does this actually look like?

Four Questions to Ask About the Curriculum

The following are some of the questions you might ask as you consider both the curriculum and the graduate profile you’ve developed.

1. Is the curriculum sticky?

When we think about learning loss, it’s easy to imagine a place where students are supposed to be and contrast that with their current content knowledge at the moment. But learning loss also occurs when students learn a topic in a shallow way and then forget it later. Ever crammed for a test and then discovered that you forgot all of the information two weeks later? This type of learning loss is more about learning evaporation. It’s the notion that the learning wasn’t truly “sticky” to begin with.

This stickiness factor is critical because so many of the standards build on one another from year to year. If you take the time to explore the math or reading standards, for example, you’ll see significant overlap between third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade. Similarly, the bigger concepts in science tend to cycle from year to year with students learning a topic like forces and motion at a deeper and deeper level. Unfortunately, when learning isn’t sticky, teachers spend more time reviewing content. One of the challenges with this year’s learning loss is not so much that students have fell behind with instructional time so much as they’ve forgotten content they learned in the last two years.

One solution to this problem is to launch a project-based learning unit. With PBL, students learn the content in an authentic, integrated way that allows students to retain the information for a longer period of time. In other words, PBL is sticky. If you’re not familiar, here is a basic overview of PBL:

The PBL approach can feel risky. With students lagging behind, it can feel like there’s not enough time to engage in authentic PBL. However, there is some fascinating emerging research on how project-based learning can increase student achievement and also improve the stickiness factor. Unfortunately, many students who fall behind in basic skills end up with remediation through repetitive worksheets or drill-and-kill adaptive learning programs. However, we can design PBL experiences with scaffolds and supports for all students to access the learning. When this happens, they can learn the content at a deeper level and retain it for a longer period of time.

2. Is there a chance to play?

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wingrow argue that the biggest innovations in farming actually occurred through an experimental approach to “play farming,” where women adapted new techniques through a bold process of trial and error. They go on to describe some of the biggest innovations in history over the last few millennia and describe how often these were the results of play rather than focused problem-solving. In other words, people chased their curiosity and played with materials, ideas, and approaches and only later found a problem to solve. Similarly, in Thinking Better, Marcus du Sautoy describes how some of the key innovations in mathematics occur when people play around with numbers and geometry in creative ways.

In education, Jed Dearybury and Julie P. Jones describe how a playful approach to learning can benefit students in a classroom setting by increasing curiosity, fostering collaboration, and boosting creativity. In their book The Playful Classroom, they describe specific strategies teachers can use to integrate play into the daily classroom experience. For a deeper dive, check out the interview I did with Jed Dearybury last year.

This might seem like a fanciful idea. After all, teachers have to teach the standards and stick to the curriculum map. However, playful learning isn’t about abandoning the curriculum in order to pursue free time. Instead, it’s about taking a playful approach that incorporates novelty, curiosity, and creativity. It includes being a curator and nerding out on your favorite books. It includes thinking divergently and creating something new. In other words, it’s less about what and more about how.

I’ll admit that I used to view playfulness as being childish. While I incorporated playful learning into my middle school classroom, I couldn’t imagine it working at a high school. Then I visited Lam Nguyen‘s advanced calculus class in Winnipeg. His class looked nothing like I had imagined an AP classroom would look. The walls were white boards and students were working collaboratively at solving problems. They had class celebrations and rituals. He had gamified a few components while still focusing on the intrinsic element.

“I want students to see that math is fun. I want them to fall in love with the subject. I want them to treat math like a playground,” he told me.

Lam Nguyen’s students still had to master the same standards and they regularly outperformed more traditional classrooms. These playful elements were not an escape from learning but an escape to learning. When students realized that they could play with math, they became less anxious. They took more intellectual risks. They pushed through the challenges and developed a growth mindset. Along the way, they developed critical soft skills. Which leads to my next point . . .

3. Does the curriculum help develop soft skills?

When I visit classrooms or interact with students in my cohort, they describe a similar scenario of students who seem to lack essential soft skills.

A first grade teacher said, “They’re struggling with reading but the bigger struggle is how to deal with some of the violent outbursts we’re seeing.”

A ninth grade teacher said, “My students aren’t turning in their work, which I can handle. But they also give up so easily. They’re not very resilient.”

Some of these issues are related to trauma. No doubt, many of these issues connect to larger cultural trends as well. But the overall theme seems to be the idea that students are genuinely struggling on a social-emotional level. They’re in need of critical soft skills.

This is one of the reasons I love project-based learning. It’s a chance for students to develop critical soft skills like collaboration, creativity, and perseverance. In the following sketch video, I share what happens when students engage in PBL:

In their upcoming book The Pulse of PBL, Mike Kaechele and Matinga Ragatz demonstrate how an overlap of PBL and SEL can help students develop these essential skills. For a deeper dive, check out Mike’s blog post on 10 Ways to Introduce SEL and PBL. Years ago, Mike helped me revamp my approach to PBL by incorporating key SEL skills into our protocols. This is why, as the co-owner of Blend Education Publishing, I jumped at the opportunity to publish their upcoming book.

Note that PBL and SEL are not new things that you need to add to an already crowded plate. Instead, it’s about re-arranging your plate in a way that allow students to engage in meaningful projects while they develop vital soft skills. Ultimately, PBL provides a great context for students to learn and practice critical SEL skills. There’s a natural overlap between the two:

The image has an overlap of project-based learning and social-emotional learning as a Venn Diagram with soft skill development in the middle.We can integrate social-emotional learning lessons into our PBL units in a way that helps facilitate metacogntion. Meanwhile, they can practice these SEL skills as they engage in project-based learning. Ultimately, when both PBL and SEL work together in tandem, students develop critical soft skills and grow into the critical thinking, life-long learners we know they can be.

But this also needs to focus on the bigger idea of student voice and choice. When this happens, students grow more self-directed.

4. Does the curriculum empower students with voice and choice?

When students are self-directed, they are self-starters, meaning they can initiate the learning on their own. They can problem-solve challenges that occur. They can begin the day focused on learning even when a teacher isn’t present. Students who are self-directed are also self-managers. They know how to keep track of learning tasks and manage their time. They develop systems to track their progress on projects and assignments without needing frequent reminders of the deadlines.

There is no magic formula to build student self-direction in the learning. However, as educators, we can design learning experiences that build on student autonomy and agency. For example, if they are using the LAUNCH Cycle for a design thinking project, students have the chance to own every phase of the project.

The LAUNCH CYCLEHere’s what I mean:

  • Look, Listen, and Learn: You start from a place of student ownership by tapping into their geeky interests, their questions, or their prior knowledge. If they observe a natural phenomenon, you encourage them to jot down their findings. As they develop empathy, it will need to be student-directed.
  • Ask Tons of Questions: Students ask their own questions. Although you might provide sentence stems or sample questions, you can ask students to self-select their scaffolding and ultimately generate their own questions.
  • Understanding the Process or Problem: Students engage in their own research. They ask the questions, find the sources, and paraphrase the information. Students can also decide which research strategy they want to use, including note-taking, spreadsheets, or sketch-noting.
  • Navigate Ideas: Students generate their own ideas and then create their own project plan.
  • Create a Prototype: Students engage in their own project management, choose their own approaches, and ultimately own the prototyping process.
  • Highlight and Fix: Students own the assessment process as they engage in self-assessment and peer assessment, including a critical friends structure (that I’ll be getting into in the last section).

When we empower students to own the project process, we increase buy-in. Students who might initially seem needy become confident as they internalize the reality that they are no longer working for their teacher. Note that we still need to have structures and protocols in this process. Even in project-based learning, teachers still need to incorporate direct instruction and provide supports for students.

The best way to prepare students for the future is by empowering them in the presentWhere do we go from here?

There are many ways to empower our students with voice and choice. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be exploring what student ownership looks like in every facet of learning. This includes helping students self-select scaffolds and take ownership or their learning supports. It also means empowering teams to own the collaborative process. We’ll look at how students can own the assessment process at both the individual and peer levels. I’ll also share strategies for how to get started with student-centered projects through project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, mini-projects, and design thinking.


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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