Learning Recovery is Complicated by Asia’s Preexisting Learning Crisis

Asia’s education systems face complex challenges as they emerge from the pandemic. Photo: ADB
Asia’s education systems face complex challenges as they emerge from the pandemic. Photo: ADB

By Paul Vandenberg

Efforts to address pandemic-related learning loss may draw on innovations devised to tackle the ongoing learning crisis – and vice versa.

As students head back to the classroom, the question for teachers, schools and ministries of education is:  how do we recover the learning that students lost during the pandemic?

The solutions lie in accelerating the learning process. A pupil entering grade five must first catch up on grade four material and then also complete the grade five syllabus.  That might be done by the end of grade five. It depends on how much learning was lost and how much acceleration is possible. It may take to the end of grade six or seven to fully catch up.

The solutions for getting more learning into a given semester or year currently focus on four areas. One is more effective teaching and learning per class hour, including grouping by level, adding teaching assistants and providing computer-assisted learning tailored to student level. The second is more hours of learning time, by extending the school day, using Saturday, and/or adding summer school. The third approach is to consolidate the curriculum by giving more class time to core subjects. And fourth, where students can learn remotely, a hybrid approach can couple in-person learning during school hours with remote learning afterwards.

Ministries of education are thinking through these options. The trickier problem is that these solutions may work in well-functioning school but not in others. Before the pandemic, many developing countries in Asia already faced a learning crisis.

 The crisis stems from low quality education in which pupils do not learn what is required at their grade level and yet move on to the next level, falling further behind. Many assessments provide ample evidence of the crisis. For example, even before the pandemic half of grade five students in one sizeable Asian country could not even read at a grade two level. Globally, half of children in low- and middle-income economies in 2019 were not able to read and comprehend a simple story when they finished their primary education.

The near-impossible task of effectively teaching a class with great disparity in learning levels is a chief factor underlying the learning crisis.

In this context, what do learning loss and learning recovery mean? Maybe it is that, because of the pandemic, a grade five student can only read at a grade 1 level.  If so, then would the target for learning recovery be to get that student to the grade two level by the end of grade five? This sounds a bit absurd, but it is the problem we face.

It may be that not much learning was lost – because not much learning normally takes place. Consider this analogy: You are walking at night and confronted by a man who pulls out a knife. He says, “Hand over your wallet.”  Not wanting to incur bodily harm, you comply. He runs off and soon realizes what you have known all along: there was very little money in the wallet.

There will be calls to “build back better” – the “better” meaning from the pre-existing learning crisis level. That is a laudable, but can we get those students, cited above, to read not just at a grade two level but a grade five level?

The near-impossible task of effectively teaching a class with great disparity in learning levels is a chief factor underlying the learning crisis, and learning disparities increased due to the pandemic. Thus, methods that help teachers to teach at the right level for each student are particularly effective. Many involve edtech, in part because they use artificial intelligence to determine a student’s level and then offer exercises at that level. These past experiments are now being looked at as possible solutions to recover learning loss.

Tackling the twin challenges of learning loss and the learning crisis will not be easy, but success is more likely if guided by the following principles. First, we must recognize that the learning crisis exists and is a key contextual factor for recovery efforts. Second, assessment (i.e., testing) is needed at the start of recovery so that we know where children are at in their learning journey.

Third, we have learned a lot about how to conduct remote learning. It may not be a perfect substitute for in-person instruction, but it has benefits.  Instead of discontinuing remote learning, it should be shifted from substitute (during the pandemic) to valuable supplement (post-pandemic).

Fourth, to address learning disparities in the classroom, methods to teach at the right level can be used. And fifth, learning happens not only in the classroom. We need a whole-of-community approach that involves students, parents, siblings, teachers, tutors, technology, and community organizations.

Innovations to address the learning crisis may help to address learning loss. But the reverse can also be true –  new techniques deployed to recover learning loss may provide solutions to the ongoing learning crisis.