Post-COVID, One Lingering Factor for Education

And 3 important considerations in overcoming an after-pandemic abnormality.

GUEST COLUMN | by Brian Galvin

As we close the book on the most disruptive school year in recent memory, teachers, parents, and learners alike are anxious to get back to normal. But the beginning of the 2021-22 school year promises to have one lingering piece of abnormality that must be addressed: COVID learning loss.

‘And no matter how adaptive and effective an algorithmic self-study program might be, it can’t provide the empathy or build the kind of rapport that a human educator can.’

Far too many students have fallen behind what would be typical progress in math and reading. Parents, administrators, and even the federal government with its significant American Recovery Plan funding are looking for the most effective and scalable ways to combat learning loss. All the while, educational technologies are vying and claiming to be a magic bullet solution, but ultimately the most effective tool for reaching a new normal will be a time-tested one:

Tutoring.

In over 50 years of academic research, tutoring has proven to boost academic performance, and is uniquely suited to address needs created by educational disruptions during the COVID era.

As families and educators assess their options to close the gap, they must consider three important obstacles to overcoming learning loss in the years ahead:

Technology alone can’t make an impact

2020 was a great time to be a tech-savvy early adopter…and a challenging one if you weren’t.

While some students thrived in a technology-fueled learning environment, those who didn’t sorely missed the personal touch of school. Whether they longed for classmate camaraderie, teacher mentorship, or just the accountability of an authority figure looking them in the eye, the students most left behind by virtual learning largely found this era too impersonal and not sufficiently engaging.

Their needs can’t be filled by an app or by artificial intelligence; they require human interaction and personal attention that was missing over the last year. Technology alone can’t solve the problem, unless that technology provides personal interaction, customization and individual mentorship.

Solutions must offer a human connection

To their credit, teachers moved as fluidly as they could from the in-person classroom to the virtual world. They demonstrated concepts as vividly and clearly as they could, in many cases more enthusiastically than ever to compensate for the physical distance. They assigned the necessary repetition of skills, essential given the impetus to get kids actively “doing” in a world where hands-on peer collaboration wasn’t possible.

But what they all struggled to replicate was the ongoing, interactive rhythm of an in-person classroom. They missed the dozens of daily micro-interactions between teacher and student as teachers communicate through eye contact and body language, give informal feedback while walking desk to desk scanning work in progress, and time their hallway run-ins to provide pick-me-ups or constructive criticisms in an informal fashion.

So much learning happens between the lines, in small but regular doses of interpersonal communication, and that was sorely missed this past year.

Time matters

The last year has been difficult for everyone, but students in particular sacrificed something incredibly valuable and irreplaceable: a full year of their youth. Kids lost a large chunk of the time that they’d otherwise look back on as the “good old days” of fun and frivolity—and now that they’re getting that time back, educators are going to ask them to spend some extra time outside of school catching up academically.

The least we can do for them is to make that time targeted, effective, and enjoyable, and to show them that we’re in it with them. And no matter how adaptive and effective an algorithmic self-study program might be, it can’t provide the empathy or build the kind of rapport that a human educator can.

On all three fronts, tutoring provides the perfect forum to address COVID-era learning loss with incredible effectiveness.

Tutoring, whether in-person or online, offers the subtle elements of educational interaction – an encouraging smile to say keep going, a knowing glance to get a student’s act together, the right vocal cadence to give just enough of a hint but not give the answer away—that are critical elements of the learning process.

‘…an encouraging smile to say keep going, a knowing glance to get a student’s act together, the right vocal cadence to give just enough of a hint but not give the answer away…’

Tutoring is all about connection: dedicated time for a student to discuss their thoughts and for an educator to find ways to relate to the student’s thought processes and outside interests. These connections allow a tutor to watch and listen for that moment a concept starts to click and then help the student draw the knowledge out for herself. Tutoring scratches that year-long itch for conversational, Socratic learning mixed with camaraderie and just enough frivolity.

And tutoring maximizes learners’ time. No matter how adaptive and effective an algorithmic self-study program might be, it can’t provide the empathy or build the kind of rapport that a human educator can. Students in need of catch-up support are in need of someone to provide the spoonful of sugar to help that medicine go down, to ask about their interests and weave them into lessons and to provide the encouragement to keep putting in effort.

Much of pandemic learning loss derives from the loss of that personalized interactivity and mentorship, and that’s just what tutoring is designed to provide. Tutoring is dialogue, it’s personalization, it’s a person acting as coach, teammate, cheerleader and referee when each is needed.

The solution to what was missing in this impersonal era is the personal touch, personalization, and personality. And that all comes from tutoring, the most personal solution of all.

Brian Galvin is a lifelong educator with a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Michigan and tens of thousands of hours of teaching, tutoring, and curriculum development experience. As Chief Academic Officer at Varsity Tutors, he has developed the company’s StarCourse, [email protected], Test Prep 4 All, and Learning Lab services. Connect with him through LinkedIn.

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