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What Mo Willems Can Teach Us About Addressing Learning Loss

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
March 10, 2021

My favorite children’s book author and artist is Mo Willems. "Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus", "Knuffle Bunny", "Leonardo, the Terrible Monster", to name a few, are all brilliant. Yesterday, while reading with my youngest daughter, Olive, we picked up “Can I Play Too?”. We have read this book many times but yesterday it took on a new meaning for me. 

Learning Loss With Gerald and Piggie

This series, called An Elephant and Piggie, follows two characters Gerald and Piggie on various outings, activities, and adventures. In this particular volume the two friends are really excited to play a game of catch. Just as they begin to play a new friend slithers up and asks to join them. Willems is a genius in telling stories with few words. Instead, he uses his character’s facial expressions and body language to embellish his stories. Following the question, Gerald and Piggie both pause, look at one another, and are speechless. Their new friend then assumes that they don’t want her to play with them and is about to sadly slither off. Piggy and Gerald hurriedly explain that they want her to play but that they are playing...“catch”. With their “arms”. It is a really funny and touching story, if you have not read it pick up a copy at your local independent bookstore. 

As the story progresses they decide to give it a try and the snake joins the game. The first throw of course hits the snake on the head and knocks her nearly unconscious. 

Photo from Can I Play Too, by Mo WIllems

While the snake recovers, Gerald and Piggie consult privately about what they should do next. Their second plan is to simply try again. They do and yield the same result - a dizzy friend. They really want to include their new friend so once again they huddle together privately and devise a third plan, “More Balls!!”

Photo from Can I Play Too, by Mo WIllems

You got it. The snake is basically knocked unconscious. Once again, while the snake slowly recovers, the two meet in private to solve the problem. Guess what’s they come up with for the fourth plan? Believe it or not, they decide on even more balls! But this time, just before they get ready to toss them the snake begs them to stop!

Insanity

This story reminds me of Einstein's famous quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” What struck me while I read to my daughter was the very parallel between this story and many school’s plan to mitigating the learning losses resulting from the pandemic. 

When schools closed in March of 2020 there was a collective sprint to get all instruction online. It made sense, if we could stay connected with students then teaching and learning could continue. In hindsight, equipping students, families, and teachers with hotspots, devices, and online apps and tools in some ways was akin to Piggy and Gerald’s first attempt to include the snake in their game of catch. The two had the very best intentions, the plan appeared good, that is until they threw the ball. Evidence is beginning to suggest that our plan is much the same, it did not work for all students. Many families were able to stay connected and their student’s learning continued unabated for the most part. Regrettably, this has not been the case for all families.

Mitigating Learning Loss

I have been approached by many districts, schools, and networks around the country who are serious about addressing learning loss in the fall - all of their intentions are good. If I'm honest, I have been discouraged by a number of my conversations with school leaders because their plan is like Gerald and Piggie’s second, third, and fourth plan...more of the same. These schools are considering purchasing additional online educational resources and more devices for students to mitigate learning loss. 

Gerald and Piggie’s initial plan did not work because they got the diagnosis wrong in the first place. Their second, third, and fourth plans failed because they were just more of the same plan! They needed to approach the problem differently. Similarly, if a school’s plan to address learning loss is to add even more technology, my hunch is that the plan will yield the same results we seen from the pandemic. That's not to suggest that digital solutions should not be part of the plan, but to address learning loss we have to focus on what fosters learning in the first place and consider implementing blended learning environments - those learning spaces equipped with digital and analog tools. 

Think Different

It's time to think differently if we are going to yield different results. Educational research is clear that when students gain competency with noncognitive skills and executive functions, when they learn how to approach their learning, they are more successful. From my experience this happens best when students can physically write down their goals, their daily learning plans, their reflections, etc., when they can actually see the evidence of their effort and learning. 

Instead of simply throwing more balls, let's channel Steve Jobs and "think different". What is your school’s plan to implement strategies that help students develop as learners? I would love to hear your plans and/or thoughts. Please reach out or leave a comment below! 

Be well, 

Mitch 

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