Voices in Education

Losing More This Summer: Summer Learning Loss Reconsidered
Is anyone really an educational expert? Many people, whether students or teachers, use their personal expertise as a lens for their educational wisdom. In my years of educational research and of training teachers, I have never encountered an individual who truly believes they are a bad teacher. How could this be? Clearly some people must have a better understanding of the art of teaching than others. Though knowledge is plentiful in this digital age, educators continue to disagree on some big ideas. There is an expertise dilemma where teachers and researchers paint very different pictures. Who is the real expert? This expertise dilemma led me to think about the notion of the summer learning loss.

For years, scholars issued dire warnings about the perils of summer learning loss. A recent study by Paul von Hippel1 suggests that summer learning loss is a myth. To be more accurate, the claim is that “losing” what you learn is a byproduct of how we design schools and is less of a cultural phenomenon than previously claimed. I would like to support their argument by suggesting that all students lose some information during the summer. This is simply because they are not practicing what they have been taught. How often do you use the Pythagorean Theorem? Can you tell me how Protein Synthesis works right now? While I am certain of your academic prowess I would suggest that you are not suffering from summer loss, but instead you failed to retain information that you no longer deem useful. This is simply how our brains work.

Instead of framing this as a crisis, let us consider two possible alternatives to the summer loss claim. First, if we teach content that students will encounter every day, we will create a learning scenario where students are far less likely to “lose” what they learned in academic year. For example, students who are learning the phenomena of osmosis through an exploration of how marinating meat works are likely to encounter a summer barbecue that will provide them an opportunity to demonstrate their biological expertise. Taught this way, it might be difficult for students to “lose” what they learned simply because the knowledge was made useful. Second, learning is far more than a cognitive task; it is psychological. Psychologists will tell you that how we think about ourselves dramatically impacts our learning experience. So instead of focusing on summer loss let us consider how we can build identities for students that will transcend their educational experience. Summer camps that let young women of color know that they too should consider themselves scientist, engineers, and computer scientists can do a lot to empowered them with confidence and a sense of self that will endure. Summer camps have long been the property of wealth and have rarely been places where we extend a learning environment to send messages of empowerment. Let us reconsider summer loss from this lens that suggests we can use summer to empower our young people. Summer can provide our young people with a vision of what is possible, if we move from the mindset of summer loss to the concept of summer empowerment.

For the past eight years, I merged my research interests with in a summer camp environment. Using a summer camp as the location to try new learning technologies, I made a profound discovery. Although learning science is important, convincing students that science is something for people like themselves emerged as the true benefit of our summer camps. Using summer camps to convince future scientists about how science can be a space for African-American and Mexican-American children emerged as the great gain of summer. The goal was to show students where science matters to their communities, while showing them people like themselves can thrive in high-end science research. While, I am sure students lost some of what they learned, the identities they built were enduring. They learned that people like them are scientists and despite what stereotypes might suggest their culture was perfectly fit for the culture of science. In this way, their summers were more than an opportunity to save what was lost. Summer was a way to build an enduring connection between their race, gender, and the culture of science. Let’s rethink summer. Instead of being concerned about what was lost, we should be intentional about how we can give students what will ultimately last.


1 Paul T. von Hippel, “Is Summer Learning Loss Real?” Education Next 19, no. 14 (2019), https://www.educationnext.org/is-summer-learning-loss-real-how-i-lost-faith-education-research-results/

About the Author: Bryan A. Brown is an associate professor of science education and associate dean for student affairs at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. He is the author of Science in the City: Culturally Relevant STEM Education (Harvard Education Press, 2019).