The summer issue of ‘Learn’ magazine, published by the BC Ministry of Education and circulated to all active educators and administrators in the province, arrived in my inbox a couple of weeks ago.
The lead essay, “Does Summer Learning Loss Exist: It Depends Who You Ask“, written by retired superintendent Geoff Johnson, had been recently published in the Victoria Times-Colonist.
The subject of the ‘Summer Slide’ has long been a staple in educator circles, centring on a proposition that students ‘backslide’ during the summer and forget much of what they learned the previous spring while in school. Much teeth-gnashing occurs by those who believe in this and grumble about how much time they need to spend ‘catching up’ on the (perceived) slide when students resume sitting in classrooms in September.
Mr. Johnson takes up with this group, opining that, when he had been teaching, it took “a good part of September to get things back on track both academically and in terms of re-introducing classroom expectations”. But he also demurred that research into the summer slide is inconclusive as to whether or how summer break impairs students’ ability to “pick up where they left off in June.”
Mr. Johnson goes on to profile discussions focusing on the efficacy of various summer learning programs that mitigate against learning ‘loss’, or seek to nurture literacy through reading supports, or whether summer breaks are too long, or too short.
Where, I wonder, do these people, including Mr. Johnson, spend their summer break? It sure isn’t anywhere I inhabited when I was a child and teen. Then, I couldn’t wait to be released for my summer break, when I finally got to do, and learn about, so many different things that didn’t bear any resemblance to school. These included skills: fort-building, bike-fixing, camping, sports, and identifying the critters I was exposed to in the forests, fields and beaches where I roamed. There was social learning beyond the narrow age-range of my school classroom, via random hook-ups and travels near and far. And, as I got older, there was the also the world of summer work experiences from home maintenance to retail sales, all of which helped me gain knowledge, skills and responsibilities.
Summer offers kids opportunities for learning far beyond classroom walls. And that’s a good thing.
And mixed in, throughout, was structured and unstructured play. From pick-up baseball to capture the flag to all kinds of innovative play. The kinds of play you don’t encounter in school but that experts confirm as significant for strengthening executive functioning skills and self-efficacy.
Today, when I look around my community I see a gazillion kids doing exactly these things, as I did when I was their age.
Educators will only learn more about summer learning when they get curious to discover what kids actually do during their summers. They could start in this direction in June, with helping kids prep for summer by encouraging them to get involved in as many summer experiences as they can. Then, when kids return to classes in September, educators could and should, tally and validate kids’ summer learning.
By actually observing kids during the summer and talking with them, I’m quite sure educators would discover that, far from a summer slide, kids’ learning amounts to a summer ‘bounce’.
With BC’s new, expanded curriculum-mindset, it’s a good time to make room for this. Yet, supporting the summer learning bounce will involve thinking beyond the box in at least two ways: the first, by looking beyond a myth that the only substantive learning that occurs in the life of a child or teen occurs in a classroom, a myth that certainly wasn’t true for me, and isn’t likely the case for many kids today. Second, a point related to the first, we must recognize that comparing school learning to summer learning is akin to comparing air with water. One isn’t superior to the other but they are very different.