What hurricanes and earthquakes can tell us about Coronavirus ‘recovery learning’

by Tim Oates, 04 March 2021
primary children approaching a school gate dressed in uniforms and wearing face masks

We have experienced a Covid-induced crisis in schooling in England, as have many other countries around the world, and we need to confront its impact now that pupils are starting to return to school.  Some teachers may be uncertain about the best approaches to recovery learning, yet there is clear insight to be drawn from past crises, and an opportunity to not just catch up, but actually to improve student attainment now and in the future. 

I was talking recently to a seasoned educator, and he rightly was worried about some schools which had announced that their approach upon children’s return to school would be to compress all the programme content missed because of lockdown and simply move quickly through it. He was right to be worried. ‘The same stuff, but faster...’ is very unlikely to be right. Why? Because of research: take for example the break in learning following the major earthquakes in New Zealand in 2011. From that experience, we know that learning loss from lockdown will be highly individualised. That expectation is confirmed by accounts of young people who have motored ahead through online learning, as well as research from the Education Endowment Foundation and Institute for Fiscal Studies which indicate that the extent of learning loss is profound, unevenly distributed, and has the potential to resonate through society and the economy for longer than we might think. 

But by understanding who has been affected and how, we stand a greater chance of acting to reduce ill effects. I have listened to the high-attaining pupils who have ‘concentrated only on the subjects in which I am interested’; the pupils who have had to compete for the family’s only laptop; the pupils who have suffered extreme stress and acute personal grief and have had no access to close support. The pupils who have ‘chilled out’, quite enjoying the easing of pressure from ‘learning’. The gaps and holes are unique to individuals, unpredictable and serious. Some schools got going swiftly with remote learning, others found it very challenging. And while it’s obvious that gaps have opened up in subject coverage and attainment, there is the attendant loss of ‘learning habits’ and socialisation into schooling; the practices of making the most out of the rich social and learning environment we call ‘school’. 

Learning from experience

In New Zealand, John Hattie’s work on pre- and post-earthquake attainment shows that attainment was HIGHER after the break in learning than had the school break not occurred. And it was not because schools did the same thing, only faster. No, they did something different. They attended to the individual pattern of learning loss and the need for re-socialisation into learning. Scanning the research on ‘interrupted education’ in New Zealand, after Hurricane Katrina in the United States, and from conflict and economic disruption in developing countries, we know that one-to-one and groupwork to identify individual learning loss are vital. Paul Hill’s excellent work at Stanford on schooling after Hurricane Katrina gives insights into some of the ‘dos and don’ts’. Even those schools which monitored pupils closely through remote learning will benefit from time spent attending to patterns of learning loss and breakdown of ‘learning habits’ – honesty on both sides about ‘what did you REALLY do during lockdown’ is vital. And through the personal care these approaches represent, they will emotionally re-link young people with schools and schooling. 

Foundations for effective recovery learning

But knowing where the gaps are is only the start. It also needs a clear focus on threshold concepts – the key ideas in subjects. It needs development of complex language in each subject – language and complexity of thought go closely together. It needs close monitoring of learning, immediate action to address misunderstanding and misconceptions, and variation in application and practice. Research from interrupted education shows us that by concentrating on threshold concepts and complex language, accelerated learning is possible. Work by the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies helps with development of this focused catch-up: not trying to do everything faster but accelerating catch-up through nailing blocks of learning and homing in on strictly core content – and in a motivating way. Rich questions and active discourse which involves all pupils is vital. And work which encourages thinking out of contact time – and is tailored to individuals’ gaps where necessary – will enhance all learners’ rate of progress. John Hattie offers great guidance: teachers should look at all students for clues to disrupted learning, and not just those who were traditionally most disadvantaged. They could include children whose middle-class parents believed learning was about surveillance and right or wrong answers. And we have to see things from each child’s point of view. We mustn’t fall into the educator’s assumption that just because WE think that kids must be itching to get back to study all the subjects and activities which make up a broad and balanced curriculum, that they will be – many of those kids might not.  ‘All the same, only faster’ will just seem like ‘oh no…a mountain of more work’ to those who have eased off, or been stressed out by lockdown. The focused approaches I have outlined here relieve that serious problem. It avoids the dichotomy we have seen in some discussions, where concern for mental health and wellbeing is falling into tension with the need to embark on recovery learning regarding subject content. 


What I have listed here are five foundations for effective recovery learning that are applicable anywhere in the world as children return to school settings, but also a distillation of what highly effective learning is for all, all the time – now and in the future. By not just doing ‘more of the same, but faster’ but by doing something different, and informed by research, truly equity and high attainment can be achieved hand in hand. This is one of the outline principles that we believe is important when debating the future of teaching, learning and assessment. Read more about these principles and our thinking

5 foundations for effective recovery learning

  1. One-to-one and groupwork to identify individual learning loss.
  2. Clear focus on threshold concepts – the key ideas in subjects.
  3. Close monitoring of learning, immediate action to address misunderstanding and misconceptions, and variation in application and practice.
  4. Rich questions and active discourse which involves all pupils. 
  5. Work which encourages thinking out of contact time – and is tailored to individuals’ gaps where necessary.

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