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Is learning acceleration even possible?
Last week I observed an excellent, veteran math teacher deliver a lesson on comparing equivalent fractions. The lesson, from Eureka Math (an excellent curriculum I’ve written about previously) was intended to be taught (in-person) in 60 minutes.
The teacher had broken the lesson up and spread it over two days — 120 minutes of total teaching. More time was added to the fluency (math facts) portion of the lesson, and a problem that was intended to be mostly used as a 5-minute example had shifted into a 15-minute guided practice.
When we debriefed the lesson, the teacher explained that they had extended the lesson because students were struggling with fractions — they had basically missed a large portion of fraction work in the previous grade when schools shut down — and she needed to remediate them and fill in that lost learning.
Eureka’s math curriculum is written such that all units can be covered in a typical 180-day school year, with buffer days built in to allow for teacher flexibility. But if each lesson gets split over two days in the virtual world…well, the math doesn’t add up and students will miss a large portion of the content.
This question — how do we fill in gaps from last year’s missed learning without creating new missed learning? — is one a lot of educators are struggling with now (and all the time, really), and one a lot of education think-tanks have an an answer for:
This is not a novel concept. Learning in the Fast Lane, written in 2014, posits that remediation is damaging to students, and teachers/schools/districts should opt instead to accelerate learning.
But how do we actually do this? And if it were so easy to just speed up learning, why haven’t we been doing it all along?
If we could boil the acceleration talk down to its core principle, it’s this: remediate skill and knowledge gaps within the context of new learning. That means instead of spending time on endless remedial lessons, teachers should challenge students with new concepts, like comparing equivalent fractions, and quickly backfill missing knowledge, like understanding the components of a fraction.
This is a really challenging task for teachers. Not only will they need to deepen their pedagogical understanding of instructional practices, they’ll also need a really deep understanding of the concepts taught in previous grade levels, the ability to clearly and quickly explain those to students, and the time to do it.
All that to say: accelerating learning isn’t a simple fix. In fact, if we’re serious about accelerating learning — and we should be — we should look at this not as the cure for this one-time “learning loss” (it’s a distraction, anyway). Instead, we should be investing in better curriculum and then training teachers to implement it at a really high level.
To be fair, the above-cited acceleration guides say as much, as well as offer other changes that school systems should be making (like tutoring corps and intensive summer programs, shifts that don’t place all the burden on teachers). I just worry shouting “accelerate” at teachers will confuse and demoralize them, and, even worse, frustrate and demoralize students.
Indeed, a research brief compiled by policy wonks at Brown and the University of Chicago contains this ominous note: In general, when teachers increase expectations without providing more supports, students’ grades decline. Studies of accelerated math classes that try to compress additional requirements into a shorter time frame have demonstrated negative effects, particularly for low-achieving students, in both North Carolina and California.
Thanks for reading, and have a great week.