Sustainable improvement

What works in addressing learning loss.

“Everybody is on the bus and stays on the bus” Katharine Birbalsingh – Keynote Making Shift Happen 2018


Learning loss caused by the covid pandemic has led to a large number of catch-up initiatives internationally, such as the National Education Programme in the Netherlands, which provides schools with significant additional funding to address the issue. This and similar initiatives by national governments are to be welcomed, though the danger exists that money will be squandered rather than spent effectively. In this blog I will describe some evidence-based approaches to address learning loss.

I The teacher at the core

Notwithstanding some controversy around the term, the evidence that learning loss has arisen as a result of the pandemic is overwhelming, as is the fact that the gap is greatest among pupils from families with the lowest levels of education (Engzell, Frey & Verhagen, 2020; NFER, 2021). Government support to eliminate learning gaps is therefore welcome. However, effective interventions need to put the teacher at the heart of the approach, and primarily encourage high quality teaching. We know that short-term interventions such as one-off add-on courses are less effective than a coherent approach that is implemented across the school and aligns with the school vision. At Academica we therefore advocate an approach based on evidence-informed principles, which not only address catch up from learning loss, but lead to sustainable improvements in pupil learning. The key factor is the quality of the teacher. An effective school is an environment in which teachers can be as effective as possible. Their professional development and the creation of a culture and disciplinary climate in which teachers can work effectively should therefore be central to how we organise our school. The school level matters here, a pupils need effective teachers every year and in every subject to thrive. And to be effective, teachers need to work in an organization that supports them and that has a healthy learning culture: a learning organization. Only by intervening at both the school and classroom levels can we develop sustainable improvement.

II Sustainability

To make something sustainable, the approach needs to be embedded in governance. Patch-up solutions to the crisis are not sustainable.

We need to get back to what's important. We need to add sustainable capacity that can have a long-term impact: repair less and restructure more.

III What works?

If we want to address learning gaps we need an evidence-based approach, but one that also fits with the vision and values of the school.

Interventions that work into two types of activities:

Improving what we already do

Effective teaching. To help all pupils catch up, it is helpful to build on the principles of mastery learning (more on these below). Mastery learning means that we don’t leave anyone behind, and provide support for students who are at risk of failing. To do this we need to know our pupils’ starting points, which we can do through formative diagnostic assessment. In our teaching approaches, we need to continue to use effective strategies suggested by research on learning such as retrieval practice, and what we know about explicit teaching from teacher effectiveness research.

Language development. Language lies at the heart of the curriculum. Making sure that every student reads and writes well is of the utmost importance, and if there are backlogs here we have to pick them up quickly. This requires integrated language education, in which we focus on decoding, developing a broad and deep vocabulary, and, to a lesser extent, on developing the techniques of reading comprehension.

Working as a team. Research shows that professional learning communities are one of the most effective ways to improve practice in schools (Firestone, Cruz, & Rodl, 2020). There are two main reasons for this:

  • Learning together allows us to grow faster by making use of our collective wisdom and thus learning from each other.

  • Learning together also ensures that the whole school grows together, so that all students benefit from the improved approach.

Additional support for pupils who have fallen behind

Targeted support activities may be necessary for pupils who have not yet achieved mastery of parts of the curriculum already being offered. Tutoring allows us to pay additional individual attention to those students who have fallen behind (Fryer & Howard-Noveck, 2020).

Tutoring and support is best done by professionals, and preferably by those who know the student best, their own teachers or teaching assistants. Where that isn’t possible, it’s important to make sure tutors are well-trained and have the necessary subject knowledge.

Support by teaching assistants. When support from teachers is not possible or not sufficient, we can work with teaching assistants. Research shows that this can be effective, but only if the right conditions are met:

  • Teaching assistants should be full members of the professional team that shares responsibility for pupils and not - as is sometimes the case - only help with practical tasks.

  • Teaching assistants, like the teachers, must use evidence-informed (support) strategies that are in line with the vision and working methods of the school.

IV Effective teaching with the mastery approach

Mastery learning means that we ensure that all our students can access the curriculum, and that all pupils can learn. Mastery learning consists of the following steps:

  1. Diagnostic pre-assessment and pre-teaching. Diagnostic pre-assessment is about assessing the knowledge pupils have before starting a new topic. If some or all pupils lack the necessary prior knowledge, we can organise pre-teaching with teaching assistants.

  2. Basic instruction of high quality for the whole class

  3. Monitoring progress through the use of formative assessment to determine whether all pupils have learnt and understood the intended content. We can then decide which pupils may need extended instruction or enrichment activities.

  4. We then provide high quality Extended instruction to those pupils who haven’t yet achieved sufficient mastery of the subject matter through tutorials, small groups or 1-1 education. Pupils who have mastered the topic are given enrichment activities about the same subject matter. It is important that enrichment doesn’t introduce new material, but is about further exploring the subject matter that everyone is working on.

  5. It may be necessary to provide some pupils with additional tutoring for up to twice a week.. This ensures that all children remain on the bus, as tutoring ensures that pupils are pretaught and prepared for classroom instruction.

    Effective teaching using the mastery approach

V Final words

Picking up learning loss in a sustainable way is not about doing different things, but about doing what we already do well even better. The principles of effective mastery learning and language development can be strengthened by expanding our capacity for support and tutoring by our own teachers and teaching assistants.

The above principles can be found in the Academica programmes such as High Performing Schools and the Master's programmes, Programme Excellent Teaching and Leading High Performing Education. We are committed to improving sustainable education throughout the school involving

Professor dr. Daniel Muijs

Prof. Dr. Daniel Muijs

Dean School of Education and Society