From the Magazine

Hindsight was 2020 #Science

2020 was the year of experimentation. As in-person learning was suspended across the country and remote learning took hold, we learned a lot about different ways teachers can connect with students as well as at-home issues that impact  academic performance.

A range of researchers had a field-day looking at everything from how a lack of nourishment at home can impact test scores to how virtual learning compares to the classroom. We now have the results of studies from this challenging and enlightening year. Here are some of the highlights. 

1. Insights About Inequality 

Some Students Have Way More to Lose in a Crisis. “The pandemic has set back learning for all students, but especially for students of color,” according to a report released in December by McKinsey, a global management consultancy. When an emergency hit, low income students and those from minority communities could not adapt as well to virtual learning. Low income and minority students former are likely to lose a total of 12.4 months of learning during the pandemic, twice the national average. 

This is an issue we should all care about; it impacts how Americans will contribute to the economy in the future. Black students, for example, could lose as much as 18% of their potential lifetime earnings.  The racial achievement gap in the United States is already depriving our economy as much as $705 billion each year. The good news is there are proven acceleration methods that can help. 

Kids Can’t Learn When They’re Hungry. It should come as no surprise that when kids don’t have proper nourishment, their work suffers. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a report backing up this common sense with science. It found that as benefits like food stamps run out at the end of the month, kids show noticeable effects in their work. Teens who are hungry do significantly worse on their college-entrance exams. This study reminds us of the need to address the whole-child when teaching. 


2. New Teaching Methods. 

Acting is the Best Way to Learn Language. As teachers struggled to connect with students over Zoom, many tried new ways to get kids to learn. The Educational Psychology Review studied one of these methods: acting. In their report, released at the start of the pandemic, they showed how having kids act out new words and phrases nearly doubles their ability to remember them. 

If acting isn’t an option, the report also found that having kids looking at videos and pictures can help them better remember words than just staring at text. The general takeaway: remember to use all sorts of techniques to engage every type of learner in your class. 

Analytical Questions Drive Comprehension. Applied Cognitive Psychology studied another technique college professors in particular are trying out: having students formulate their own queries.

Their report found that getting students to generate questions about a text is far more effective than testing, highlighting, underlining, or note-taking at helping them remember.

They also found that students who generate questions also tend to understand concepts rather than simply rote trivia. 

Soft Skills are Important Too. The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research looked at how schools are focusing on all aspects of a student’s mental and intellectual development. They found that some schools are great at social learning, which prepares kids with soft skills, improves attendance, and increases mental health. Others focus more on “hard work,” which increases GPA, test scores, and academic performance. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Looking at the entire child in education can help students develop in all areas during their time at school.  


3. Virtual Learning. 

We Don’t Know Jack About Virtual Classrooms. Video streaming services were around long before the pandemic, but they were never tested for the classroom until COVID-19 became a reality. The Metro Atlanta Policy Lab for Education published one of the earliest reports over the summer on this topic, looking at the efficacy of virtual instruction in grades K-12. 

The authors believe that engagement is the number one predictor of success in virtual classes and that incentives like low-cost “nudges” can push kids to participate. The biggest finding from this study is how much we still have to learn. “Unfortunately, existing research provides little reliable evidence on which online learning practices are most effective,” wrote the authors. “And the few existing causal studies yield inconsistent results.”

Surprise! Teachers are Stressed. It’s no surprise that COVID-19 stressed out teachers. With no warning and little training, they were forced to transition to entirely new teaching styles (and that’s on top of worrying about the health of themselves and their families.) But the RAND Corporation found that teachers were already overwhelmed long before the pandemic. In fact, it is one of the top reasons public school teachers quit. 

Teachers will have less anxiety if they are given flexibility (many stated it as their number one reason for picking a new gig) and have more agency in their careers. It’s up to school administrators to make that happen.

Alyson Krueger is a distinguished author and journalist based out of New York City.