Avoiding the Summer Brain Drain

Brought to you by Spring Education's Chief Academic Officer, Jeanne Huybrechts. 

When I’ve been involved in the design of summer programs, whether camp or academic offerings, I’ve always made sure to consider research-based guiding principles that respond to the questions: “How do children and teens learn best?  How should summer activities be designed so that they will complement and expand learning?” Over the years, I’ve honed my list of guiding principles to the three I consider the most important.

The best summer programs support learning and skill development, as well as one or more of these broad goals for students:

Stay Curious – Summer break is a great opportunity to explore and learn something new. Summer programs should kindle and cultivate curiosity, encouraging students towards future exploration.

Stay Sharp – Summer “brain-drain” is a well-researched phenomenon. For much of my teaching career, I taught mathematics from pre-algebra to pre-calculus. Every year, my students and I spent the first four to six weeks reviewing what they had learned the previous year. Youngsters who had spent at least a few summer weeks engaged with academics in some form always had an advantage returning to the rhythm of the school year and a steady diet of math! 

A recent Brookings Institute review of research on summer learning loss identified three key findings: (1) On average, students’ achievement scores decline over summer vacation    by one month’s worth of school-year learning, (2) declines were sharper for math than for             reading, and (3) the extent of loss was larger at higher grade levels.  Fortunately, research            shows us that summer reading is a powerful tool for preventing summer slide. Public    libraries typically host creative summer reading programs to stop or reverse summer             slide.

During the nearly three-month gap between school years, it’s important for children to have opportunities to maintain and sharpen their skills, while continuing to learn and practice foundational concepts like reading, writing and problem solving.Which brings me to my third “guiding principle:” Summer learning should center on inquiry and discovery, a blend of academic learning with hands-on activities.

Keep Discovering –We all know that the more that schools replicate real life, the more students will be engaged. Among our most memorable school experiences are those that seemed relevant or practical, that answered the question, “Why are we learning this?” We remember most what we discover on our own. During the relatively unstructured days of summer, summer-program teachers have flexibility and the luxury of time – entire half-days or full-days during which they can engage children in deep learning on a single project or around a multilayered question.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.Projects are often based around real world problems, which give students a sense of responsibility and ownership in their learning activities.

In well-crafted PBL units, students often apply academic concepts learned during the previous school year – which reduces “brain drain” – and develop new skills, like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration. They have opportunities to demonstrate initiative and self-direction, flexibility and adaptability, and leadership.