Lost Over the Summer

Summer vacation is over and on the way to school I make my now predictable joke. “Did you complete your assigned summer reading? How about that social studies diorama for Danny?” My kids smile and roll their eyes. My mind drifts back to when my kids were in public school, and summer reading lists were real things. The lists would be accompanied by references; “Summer Learning Loss” research. Wikipedia has a good summary of this literature. The literature shows that kids in traditional schools perform worse on standard math tests at the end of the summer than they did at the start of the summer. The loss is estimated to be equal to almost 3 months of schooling. Reading scores are a little different, with kids in low income families showing a loss of 2 months, while kids from wealthy families have actually shown a small gain in reading scores over the summer. This research has been part of the justification for summer reading as well as for calls for a longer school year.

Naturally, I find myself wondering what lessons learned by my SVS children have been “lost” over the summer?  Maybe they have forgotten the exact list of ingredients for gingerbread. Perhaps they forgot what time JC meets? Perhaps they have forgotten the price of their favorite snack at concession?  But these are all simple facts that can be easily re-accessed when the need for them arises. In the research on Math skill loss there is discussion about how the kids lose knowledge on how to carry out mathematical procedures.  This I can imagine. Once in my adult life, I was surprised to find myself needing to solve a quadratic equation. The only part I could remember was something about “4ac.” This was before the Internet, or at least before I knew how to use the Internet, so I found an old notebook that had common math equations on the inside front and back pages, and there it was! It took me much longer to solve my one problem as an adult than I could have done it in high school. But does that really represent an important “loss?”  If I forced myself to 15 or 20 of them, I bet I could rapidly regain my high school proficiency level, but for what purpose?

I experienced a similar problem more recently, when my daughter asked for help doing a long division problem. Much to my surprise, I had actually forgotten the mechanics of doing long division by hand. Quite embarrassed, I spent a few minutes on the Internet looking at examples, before I could help my daughter.

Especially in our Internet-driven information age, the important lessons are no longer the mechanics of doing something, but rather that a known method exists for solving problems of a certain nature. It is useful to know that there is a thing called division, best performed with a calculator, but possible to do by hand when in a jam. It is helpful to know that algebra problems in the format of ax2+bx+c=0 can be solved using an equation that can easily be found on the Internet.

Living in fear of the “Summer learning loss,” presents an image that society at large might degenerate into some sort of Stone Age society if kids have too much free time.  By the logic of summer learning loss, how do we dare to allow school to end at 12th grade? Adults, once they leave school, must devolve into some imbecilic state after a few years!

I think that the education system in our country has confused the ability to recall and rapidly execute a memorized procedure with learning life skills. The former are easily forgotten over the summer, while life skills are like learning to ride a bicycle, once learned you never forget. Each year I see my children learning important life skills at SVS such as:

• navigating complex social relations
• working in mixed age groups
• using democratic institutions to protect their rights
• balancing their own desires with the rights of others
• mastering physical challenges, such as four square, rip-sticking and tree climbing
• planning and organizing activities, such as parties, school trips, concerts, and plays

Though no reading list was assigned, both my daughters enjoy reading. They read multiple books over the summer. They choose the books by following their own curiosity and interaction with their friends.  As for the diorama? Well Danny will be disappointed this year!

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.