The idea is so engrained we hardly even question it anymore — while our kids spend their holidays sleeping in, watching TV, swimming and playing tag, all that precious knowledge they learned throughout the school year is melting away.
Holiday learning loss. The Holiday Slide. Holidaybrain drain. We read about it on parenting websites and in school newsletters, and it’s concerning. When we’re told that all the impressive knowledge our children just gained is going to ooze right out of their ears somewhere between the 15th and 20th episode of SpongeBob, it’s tempting to want to join that maths workbook club you heard a couple of mums talking about on the last day of school.
But actually, on average, our kids might not be losing as much knowledge as we once thought. University of Texas professor and researcher Paul T. von Hippel writes for Education Next that he used to be a big believer in the holiday learning loss, but now his faith has been shaken. He and a colleague have tried — and been unable to — replicate the results of a classic 30-year-old study of Baltimore elementary students that von Hippel calls the best-known study on the topic.
How did a result that looked so clear in 1980s Baltimore go up in smoke when we tried to verify it using national data from around 2010? Were children so different in the 1980s? Was Baltimore such an odd place?
No. But the way we test and score student performance has changed dramatically since the days of the Beginning School Study.
Many of us — parents, teachers, politicians, even most researchers — take standardised test scores at face value; we interpret scores as though they reflected children’s skills neutrally, like a mirror. But in the 1980s, some scores could give a misleading reflection, like a fun-house mirror. Scores from the 1980s got children in more or less the right order, with more-advanced students ahead of less-advanced kids. But they distorted the distances between children, making some gaps look larger or smaller than they were.
Today, we try to control for the difficulty of a question as part of the way we score and compare performance; that wasn’t the case when the Baltimore study began. And although achievement gaps themselves are very real, holidays from that point forward aren’t necessarily to blame for its growth.
This isn’t to say all holiday learning is pointless; of course it’s not. You should absolutely make lots of trips to the local library. You should look for ways to incorporate fun activities throughout the holiday that keep them thinking: at-home science experiments, games that include a maths component or visits to the local science centre and natural history museum are great options.
In particular, for a student who has struggled during the school year, the holidays can prove to be the perfect time to close the gap a bit, von Hippel writes. But for the most part, if your kids aren’t hitting the workbooks every morning or writing essays about their trips to the beach, don’t worry too much. Chances are they’ll still hit the ground running when school starts again.