Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Summer Slide Does Not Exist

One of the prevailing assumptions about learning is the idea of the “summer slide.” This widely-held belief asserts that summer hinders and repeals learning. Evidence of this alleged learning loss abounds. A survey by the National Summer Learning Association found that teachers spend a significant amount of time re-teaching content in fall due to summer learning loss. This loss is apparently worse for disadvantaged children. A Johns Hopkins University study of the Baltimore Public Schools found that low-income children lost more than two months of “reading achievement” over summer vacation. This perceived “summer slide” has been cited as a top reason for making summer programs, particularly for underprivileged youth, more academically rigorous. In other words, summer schooling trumps summer playing, especially if you’re poor. A free and unstructured summer, then, is seen as a playful luxury: fun, but not educative, and potentially even harmful.

What if we instead challenge the notion that the children who allegedly experience "summer slide" ever really learned at all? They may have been successfully schooled: that is, coerced, trained, and tested on specific skills and Common Core competencies before summer began. But they likely never learned. There can be no "summer slide," no loss of learning, when learning is authentic and self-directed.

In his classic book, How Children Fail, educator and unschooling advocate, John Holt, writes: "It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives."

Schooling and learning are stunningly different. When they are schooled, children (with varying degrees of success) may learn how to play the game of school—how to listen and memorize and regurgitate to the satisfaction of the teacher or the test. When children learn, however, their knowledge cannot be forgotten. A “summer slide” is not possible with real learning, only with its institutionally-contrived counterpart. Thomas Edison, who was homeschooled by his mother after his teacher called him "addled," or fuzzy in the head, when he was 8 years old, once said: “The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mold. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.”

Despite the best efforts of good teachers and administrators to inject creativity and a love of learning into their classrooms, the rigidity inherent in the structure of increasingly restrictive, test-driven schooling makes this nearly impossible. It’s hard to love something that you are forced to do. It’s hard to take ownership of something when someone else owns it. This sadly applies to students and teachers alike, who are similarly stripped of their own agency and self-direction. In his excellent book, Free To Learn (Basic Books, 2013), Boston College psychology professor and my colleague at Alternatives To School.com, Peter Gray, writes: “Children are pawns in a competitive game in which the adults around them are trying to squeeze the highest possible scores out of them on standardized tests. Anything that increases performance short of outright cheating is considered ‘education’ in this high-stakes game. Thus, the drills that enhance short-term memory of information they will be tested on are considered legitimate education, even though such drills produce no increase at all in understanding.”

The children who purportedly experience “summer slide” are the messengers. We should listen to them. They tell us, loudly and clearly, that our industrial framework of coercive, test-driven schooling doesn’t create learners. It creates mimics. Those who do well in the system are those who have learned to be good at memorizing and repeating, behaviors that Thomas Edison and many others do not master. The answer is not more schooling. The answer is less schooling and more learning. The answer is to overhaul an archaic system of forced schooling and instead embrace the ideals of authentic, self-directed education for all young people.

Authentic learning is deep and enduring. It happens all the time, all year round, including summer. Perhaps especially summer. 

1 comment:

  1. Having taught young children for many years, there is a definite "slide" (I'll use your term), with regard to newly learnt skills. This is most noticeable in reading and writing. It comes as no surprise, as you say the brain is elastic but new skills need continual repetition in order to become embedded. When young children are out of routine during the summer holiday, they are not practising and therefore a degree of "slide" occurs. I am currently learning to play the piano and read music - aged 50. Exactly the same phenomenon applies - if I don't practise, I loose some of the skills I had already learned. It doesn't mean I didn't learn, it just means I need more time strengthening my hand-eye coordination, practising my sight reading and continuing to develop my finger flexibity, strength and fine motor skills. Every lesson in which I am a pupil, teaches me more about the learning process. If we attempt to define what children have learnt, purely using tests, we are missing the point! I believe the curriculum should be broad, all encompassing and view all children as holistic learners. They need child led activities and freedom to explore alongside structured programmes which teach a variety of skills.