If you’ve ever ridden the trains in the UK, you’ve heard the phrase “Mind the gap!”
If you’re not sure what it refers to, it’s reminding you to be aware that the train doesn’t line up right up against the platform, resulting in a “gap” over which you will need to step to get on or off of the train. If you’re not mindful, it’s easy to trip and or drop something down the void and under the train.
This actually happened to me one day when I was living in Japan. As the train slowly came to a stop beside us, the throng of people waiting (many of whom had been waiting since before the previous train came and went) sidled up to stand just to the right and left of the doors.
My city dwellers are nodding their heads right now.
I was not quite in the front of the group. (I hesitate to call it a line.) The man behind me started pushing in the middle of my back as soon as the doors opened, undoubtedly feeling stressed about having to wait for yet another train to board in order to get where he was going on time. The consequence was that I was caught between him pushing and the people in front of me who hadn’t moved yet. I lost my balance. In trying to regain it and not fall in “the gap”, I lost my slip-on dress shoe under the train. Consequently, I had to push through the crowd to get back off of the train, wait until the train had left, find a conductor, explain (in Japanese) that I needed someone to retrieve the shoe, wait for it to be retrieved, wait for the following train to arrive, etc before I could get to my job on time.
I tell this story because I am reminded of it every year as we go back to school.
Every year the work that students start out the year doing is a jump from where they left off at the end of the previous year. It’s like the teachers look at where they “are supposed to get them” at the end of the upcoming year and think “that’s way too far to go in one year if we start where we left off.” Like the man pushing me in the back in his stress to get where he was supposed to be going, they push the starting point to a level that they feel is a reasonable distance from where they are “supposed to get.”
A real-world example I have personally observed:
Kindergartners end the year finally able to write a sentence.
First grade starts with expecting them to write 3 coherent, complete sentences (in response to a writing prompt) with capitals and lower case letters in all of the correct places, ideal spacing between words and all appropriate punctuation.
This is a huge gap. When I asked why they were starting the first graders so far from where they left off, I was told “you don’t know what we’re supposed to get them to do by the end of the year. By the end of second grade, they have to be able to write 3 paragraphs!” Here is the problem with that logic:
The kids start off the year feeling behind. This causes them to be stressed out about the work.
Everybody is still getting used to new routines, new relationships and new boundaries at the beginning of the year. So this is the worst time for students to feel like the expectations are way beyond them.
Students who feel like they can’t - won’t and don’t. Students who feel like they can- will and do.
Students who won’t don’t progress. So in attempting to shorten the road to the goal, these teachers have actually increased the difficulty by creating an uphill where there wasn’t one to begin with.
They are not only widening the gap but they are also pushing on their students’ backs causing them to feel off-kilter which ultimately means they won’t be on that train. Those teachers are consequently going to have to wait at the station for the students who lost shoes to get there after having to backtrack.
You’re way better off starting the year figuring out where your students are. Then you can formulate a plan to get them as close to where they are “supposed to be” as possible by building a series of small steps for them to climb systematically. The more manageable each step is the more likely that they will be able to take several in a row.
Otherwise you are leaving at least some (if not all) of your students shoeless on the platform trying to find a conductor.
As you start planning for next year…
mind the gap.