Focused
Simplicity
to Recover Learning Loss
By Dr. John M. Nelson III
T

he COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of U.S. schools has severely impacted learning for many students. Throughout the past 19 months, educators across the nation have expressed their fear of learning loss by students across all grade levels, but especially students of color.

Additionally, children have lost so much: family members, relationships with friends and teachers, and emotional well-being.

This desire to recover learning loss has prompted educators to seek immediate solutions. Many districts are developing elaborate models to address learning loss by focusing on structural changes, including an extended school year, extended school periods and days, and instructional solutions such as prioritizing key standards and reteaching standards previously taught from the grade below. Schools are using district and commercial products to assess student achievement. However, in some cases, the frequent monitoring is creating a deficit mindset about students. Education companies and professional organizations are rushing to provide professional development academies and resources for teachers to address these deficits.

Turning a Challenge into an Opportunity
Large-scale disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic are always a challenge, sometimes a tragedy, and I would like to offer “an opportunity.” If we are not careful, we may end up doing even more harm to our students and teachers. If we don’t look at the issue of learning loss as an opportunity for instructional improvement, we may lose another generation of students and teachers. Neither students nor teachers will survive a mindset based on deficits and remediation if that is the only thing they hear and experience.

So, you ask, ‘What can a school do? ‘How do we ensure that we don’t do more harm than good?’ Based on my 41 years of being an educator, the answer lies in the power of focus. I would argue that it’s all about focusing to achieve simple, unstoppable school learning. As John Maeda wrote, “the first law of simplicity is: Reduce.” Or in other words, complexity is the enemy of implementation. School systems have ignored what successful organizations have always known: Time and energy are precious, and resources are limited; if we squander them on a wagon load of initiatives, we will fail.

green chess pieces on track with red chess pieces off track on a longer trail
Sometimes Less Can Be More
Michael Fullan has written, “There is too much overload and baggage on the current change journey. The skinny is about finding the smallest number of high-leverage, easy-to-understand actions that unleash stunningly powerful consequences.” This message is critical as schools identify and implement solutions to support learners. For decades, educators have embraced the belief that more is better in education and that numerous literacy initiatives will result in improved learning. As we consider changing the paradigm to a focused simplicity, how do we actually do it? How can we use this current challenge as an opportunity for change in our school culture?

The key to establishing focused simplicity is the identification and implementation of ONE schoolwide targeted instructional area. A targeted instructional area is ONE specific academic area of the curriculum the staff has chosen as most important for its students to know and be successful in their academic work. A targeted instructional focus is based on every student’s learning needs as evidenced by multiple sources of data. A targeted instructional area touches the whole school every day. And finally, all school personnel hold each other mutually accountable and expect every student to show growth in the targeted instructional area. Any excuses for low performance based on race, gender, ethnicity, primary language, socioeconomic level or class factors are unacceptable.

clipart of a man with a spyglass in a large hand avoiding coronavirus
Experience shows the key to high-performing or rapidly improving schools is they focus their efforts and don’t try to do everything all at once. This does not mean we don’t teach all subjects, but rather, we incorporate this focus in everything we do in school. Schools often choose from a wide variety of targeted instructional areas, including reading comprehension, academic conversations, and evidence-based writing. A targeted instructional area is the one thing that all staffs know and can do excellently, better than anyone else.

The Power of Shared Accountability
The key to the success of a targeted instructional area is the mutual accountability shared by teachers and school and district leaders to do whatever it takes to ensure all students are successful. This is accomplished by opening up classroom practice so that leadership and peers are continually visiting classrooms and meeting in grade-level or discipline teams to discuss instructional practice and data that shows the impact of that practice on student learning. Please note that this is not done as a “gotcha,” but rather is about supportive collaboration based on the belief that continuous improvement will only occur if we engage with each other.

young student flexing his arm while holding his school supplies
Large-scale disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic are always a challenge, sometimes a tragedy, and I would like to offer “an opportunity.” If we are not careful, we may end up doing even more harm to our students and teachers.
Two of the first steps schools/districts should take with their staffs to begin developing a targeted instructional focus are:

  1. Build support for the targeted instructional focus
  2. Examine their expectations of students

These steps both impact beliefs, and beliefs are directly connected to the willingness to change. As with all systemic improvement efforts, it is essential to build staff support; if the staff does not believe in this work, it will not translate into changes in teaching and learning. In examining staff expectations for student learning, teachers must ask the question, “Do we really believe that ALL students can learn everything we are trying to teach them?”

What Focused Simplicity Looks Like
Once a targeted instructional focus has been identified and agreed upon by the stakeholders, professional development is planned and implemented around that targeted area.

After identifying the targeted instructional area and ongoing professional development has been developed, the school is on its way to establishing a focused simplicity around ONE academic area. However, this is only the first step in making lasting change in the school building. Ongoing efforts must occur throughout the year. Listed below are examples of how we can deepen the focused simplicity so that the targeted instructional area touches every child, every day.

magnifying glass
Once a targeted instructional focus has been identified and agreed upon by the stakeholders, professional development is planned and implemented around that targeted area.
  1. A reduction of programs and an increase with all remaining programs to support the targeted instructional area.
  2. Administrative team, instructional leadership team and PLCs are networking and receive ongoing training in the targeted instructional area.
  3. The total school environment reflects the targeted instructional area (classrooms, halls, office, cafeteria, gym, etc.).
  4. Resources realigning to support the targeted instructional area.
  5. Staff identifies and implements ways to chart growth using assessment measures that benchmark progress in the targeted instructional area.
  6. All staff can articulate the targeted instructional area and demonstrate increased proficiency in the area.
  7. Signs, posters, and displays of student work throughout the school promote the targeted instructional area.
  8. Student progress in the targeted instructional area is publicly displayed and communicated.
  9. Principal and administrative team keep the targeted instructional area at the forefront of the school’s work through classroom visits, coaching, modeling, allocation of resources, and support.

How Achieve3000 Literacy Can Help
As Achieve3000 Literacy users, you may consider incorporating a focused simplicity model to support students’ academic achievement and strengthen teachers’ expertise in literacy. As schools implement the solution’s powerful literacy framework (Ready-Read-Respond-Reflect-Write), they can look at student data and identify which elements of the framework students need the most help with.

clipart of a man who climbed a ladder on top of coronavirus and is using a binoculars to look for a new hope
Let’s say “thought question” responses are weak, based on analysis of writing samples across multiple grades. Teachers will continue to have students do all components but focus their professional development on nurturing students’ skills in evidenced-based writing responses, modeling effective responses, and having students utilize Achieve3000-developed rubrics to score their own work.

Teachers can also observe other teachers as they instruct their students on how to respond in writing. Grade-level meetings (PLCs) can be used to review student responses to thought questions. And principals can observe and give targeted feedback to teachers as they instruct their students in writing. Meanwhile, teachers are monitoring student progress on thought questions to track their responses and improve instructional practices.

This model of focused simplicity takes discipline and focus to “stay the course” rather than seeking a different solution if the results are not immediate. But schools that commit to this model demonstrate measurable progress in student achievement and teacher capacity to provide a high-quality learning environment for all students.

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About the author

Dr. Nelson is a dedicated instructional leader, expert in the use of technology to improve student outcomes, and passionate advocate for English language learners. During his tenure as the Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services at the Chula Vista Elementary School District in California, he oversaw the district’s dramatic improvement in academic performance and high-stakes test scores through the implementation of a student-centered instructional framework and a cloud-based differentiated instruction solution. With four decades of experience in education, Dr. Nelson has also worked as a classroom teacher, ESL instructor, school principal, and lecturer at San Diego State University.