Lessons We Can Learn From Past Learning Interruptions.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw education systems across the world close, and billions of children go without consistent learning for months at a time. Society wished that the pandemic would only last a few weeks, and things would go back to normal. During those first few weeks of the pandemic, no one realized how long it would last, and just how deep the learning loss would run, as billions of children were displaced from their education. Now we are asking ourselves, how can we help our children catch-up? Are there lessons we can learn from past learning interruptions? 

This generation of students is at risk.

According to a report published by the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF: “This generation of students now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value. Or about 14 percent of today’s global GDP (Gross Domestic Product), as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures.” More information here.

“The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable.” Said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education. Parents across the world echo his sediment. Parents are concerned for their children’s educational well-being and their futures. Jamie Saavedra continued by saying: “… the potential increase of Learning Poverty might have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings, and well-being for this generation of children and youth, their families, and the world’s economies.”

“The loss of learning that many children are experiencing is morally unacceptable.”

Jaime Saavvedra – World Bank Global Director for education

Education disruptions aren’t unique to this generation, are there lessons we can learn from past learning interruptions?

You don’t have to look too far back to find pinnacle moments in our history, where learning was interrupted. World Wars and pandemics are just some of the causes of historical learning interruptions. So, what did parents, students and educators do during these educational interruptions? And are there lessons that we can learn from these past learning interruptions, to help our children in the future?

Education and the First World War, 1914 – 1918

The history of schools during the First World War has been heavily neglected. Until recently when several detailed written studies (monographs) were published during the last decade. These monographs have really started to fill the gap of knowledge that we had about education during the First World War.

The studies focused on how schools functioned during the war. Especially in the main countries that were affected by the war. Clearly, education was disrupted during the First World War. But just how much? In the combatant nations (in Europe), school’s were disrupted in many different forms. As the armies were often reassigning the schools as hospitals, barracks, or military offices. Additionally, many young teachers were entering the military, which caused a major teacher shortage for countries that had prominently male teachers. For countries in Central Europe, there were major shortages of food and coal. Which then played a major role in school closures.

Some European schools attempted to stay open, despite all the setbacks. However, the lack of teachers proved to be a major issue. School administrators were desperate to find replacements for these teachers. So, they turned to retired teachers, or teachers that were still in training. Schools tried to mix classes together, but the overcrowded rooms caused disease and other issues with the children. Many schools tried half and sometimes even one-third day sessions, with little success.

In Canada and the United States:

Italy, France, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States faired much better than countries in Central Europe during the First World War. One reason was 60-80 percent of teachers were female. The children and teachers in these states also didn’t suffer from serious malnutrition like those of Central Europe. However, many children were unable to attend school because they had to start working from a young age to support their families as their father’s were away. Comparatively, some children had to watch their younger siblings, while their mother went to find work, so the children would inevitably miss school.

The First World War played a major role in interrupting the lives of children around the world. These children faced school closures, educational uncertainties, absent parents, deaths of loved ones, poverty, and malnutrition. Children at this time struggled to understand why? So, emotional strain was also a contributor in loss of learning during The First World War.

The Spanish Flu Pandemic 1918 – 1920

As if children didn’t struggle enough from the terror of The First World War. They now faced a global pandemic. Following the end of The First World War in 1918, countries all over the world were thrown into a global pandemic from soldiers returning from Europe with the virus. The Spanish flu resulted in school and business closures across the globe. In Ontario, Canada students from primary years to university were largely affected by the pandemic. In the fall of 1918, the Ontario School Board forced school closures across Ontario. These closures lasted from one week to over three months.

The prolonged school closures caused major educational delays for students. In New York, schools claimed that “the school work of half the year will amount to little or nothing.”

The Great Depression

During the 1900’s many generations struggled with proper education. In 1932 The Great Depression played a significant role in halting education for many children. Budget cutbacks, less school hours, increased class sizes, teachers being payed less, and school closures, all had negative effects on children’s education. Along with teachers struggling to teach the children that would come to school because the children were undernourished as their families were unemployed and unable to provide food.

Education during the 1930’s became a luxury, one that many children were not able to obtain.

The Second World War 1939 – 1945

Children’s education suffered intensely again during the Second World War. In Britain, bombing and military requisitions caused 1 and 5 schools to close. Families were separated, homes were destroyed, parents passed away and emotional trauma was at an all-time high. Many children were evacuated, leaving their homes, families, and schools.

In Canada and the United States, elementary schools, high schools and universities, were all affected. There wasn’t enough man-power to keep the economy running. Due to this, teachers and professors had to work or enlist. Causing there to be a mass shortage in teachers, professors, lessons and curriculum. The war wasn’t just academically disruptive, it was also socially disruptive. Which is similar to the disruption in education and social lives of children today.  

Looking back…

The 1900’s was riddled with traumatic events which halted education, many, many times. Despite the educational ups and downs and major uncertainties, we can now look back and see that many of the children of those generations, are the people that laid the groundwork for the lives that we have today. 

While there were many negative impacts on education and children’s lives during these trying times in history, it’s important to note that there were also many positive opportunities that arose from these intense times.

Some positive results in education: 
  • Women were offered many more opportunities in education, and the workforce. 
  • Traditional teaching methods were rapidly changed. 
  • Physical education, and health became a priority in education. 
  • Education became much more accessible, regardless of what class you might come from. 
  • History and Social Studies were completely revamped. 
  • Systems were set up to help returning soldiers, catch up on their education. 

Looking forward, with lessons we’ve learned. 

Education isn’t something that can only be obtained in a classroom. And that truly is one of the best lessons that we can learn from history. Many of the children from these generations still excelled, despite the closures and chaos. How? Because education is all around us, it’s everywhere. And the sooner that we see that, the better.  

Children still managed to learn during those times, just like they continue to learn during these times. Yes, without proper intervention and recovery, children will have a much more difficult time catching up. So, we need to remind ourselves that we do have the tools readily available to help our children now. 

And while it’s nice to think ‘my child will be fine, many kids back then were!‘ it’s extremely  important to remember that not all lessons from the past are positive ones. Looking back at the 1918 pandemic, history tells us that many of the children from that time lived a much more difficult life. Because, following that pandemic, there was no solid plan put into place on how to help children recover from the learning losses that they had experienced. 

Taking action. 

You must be your child’s advocate. Because no one else will be. You know your child, and you are aware of the areas that they are struggling. While we can’t talk to the successful people of the past generations, and find out how they overcame these learning losses. We can assume that someone created an action plan for those children to help them get back on track. 

Don’t feel intimated, you have been creating action plans for your child since they were born, whether you realize it or not.  As your child’s parent you have been there to help them learn and grow. This is no different. Even if your child appears to be doing just fine, there are likely areas of their education that they have missed. Which is why it is imperative that you take action to help them catch up. 

While we would love for the education system to come up with some sort of an action plan to help students, we know the sad reality is that many and most schools are simply pushing students onto the next grade. Even though these children need help. 

You must take action, you must be your child’s advocate and help them. 

Student Action Plan: 

1. Defining areas of struggle.

First, you need to identify the areas of your child’s education that they are struggling with. These are the areas that you need to help them with immediately. Make a list of the academic areas that they need the most help with, bearing in mind that it might not be ‘all of math’, it could be a concept from math that they need help with. 

2. Brush up on all areas of learning. 

Even if you’ve noted that the problem area is reading and writing, but they seem to be doing well with math. You should still be helping them with their math skills. Because even if they appear to be doing well with one subject area, there might be (and likely are) key concepts that they have missed. This will then appear as a problem later on down the road. 

3. Keep frustrations low. 

If you are addressing an area of struggle, please remember to be patient. Your child may become frustrated with themselves, and overwhelmed. It’s imperative that you keep the child calm during these learning times, so they can better process what they need to learn. 

4. Communicate with their teacher/school. 

Talk to their teacher! Voice your concerns, ask for directions on how to catch them up. If the teacher isn’t able to help, go to the principal for help. This is your child, and their future. It’s okay to ‘be annoying’ when advocating for them. 

5. Be consistent. 

It’s so easy to hand your child the iPad and hope they can figure it out. Or somehow miraculously catch up on their own. But the reality is, they likely won’t. You as the parent must be consistent. Read with your child, go over different concepts with them. If you are not able to do this, then outsource to a tutoring program. That can help your child catch up and excel. Much like Schoolio After-School. 

Parent Action Plan: 

1. Be their advocate.

You are your child’s advocate, so be that for them. I know how intimidating it can be to stand up, and voice your concerns. But if you don’t do it for them, who will? 

2. Talk to your child about their concerns. 

Your child needs someone to listen to them, to hear their concerns and frustrations. Be sure to openly communicate with them. Let them talk! Don’t judge. 

3. Address your issues. 

Yes, you read that right. If you are feeling like this is “all your fault”. That’s a problem, and you have to address it. The pandemic was not, and is not your fault. Your child’s learning loss is not your fault. We can’t control most circumstances, much like we can’t fix the past. But we can put in the work to make the future bright. You have that ability, so don’t stop working on yourself. 

4. Ask for help! 

If trying to tutor your child is just not working, or you just really don’t know how to help them. Ask for help! Reach out! Do some research, talk to experts. You aren’t alone! While it’s important to be your child’s advocate, it’s also important to realize that there are so many people who care about the future of this generation. Find people that are of the same mindset, and able to help where needed. 

5. Take care of you. 

You’ll notice that above I wrote that it’s easier to just hand your child an iPad. Because as parents we are tired, and burnt out. Taking care of everything all the time is exhausting and overwhelming. So, it’s incredibly important that you take time to work on and help yourself. Programs like The Burnout Blueprint by Daddy’s Digest, can prove to be beneficial. Take time to work on you and do things that you love. 

We must move forward. 

It can be easy to slip into a place of negativity, and feelings of ‘they’ll never catch up.’ Don’t do that. You must remain optimistic as you look to the future. I’m sure that if you could go back and pick key successful people from each of the generations that faced intense trauma and learning losses. You would find that those who were successful chose to look forward, not back. They chose to learn the lessons that they could, when they could. And didn’t worry so much about the things they had missed. 

Pairing a positive mindset with a carefully cultivated action plan, will have the best impact on your child’s future. So, let’s move forward, together! 




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