Don’t Forget to Tell Your Students to Mind the Gap

The other day I picked on anatomy teachers so it’s only fair that history teachers get a little grief as well, and who better to pick on than myself?  It’s so easy to do. 🙂  In my last post, I wrote about how “Mind the Gap” is my new mantra, reminding me that to get my students to think critically I need to leave some gaps between what I’ve taught and they already know and what I want them to learn or do.  I keep this little phrase in mind when I design my lesson plans and assessments, and I’m always looking for the gap.

Recently, we studied the Great Depression and the New Deal, and I designed a few short answers for students to complete with “mind the gap” firmly in mind.   We’d studied the economic, political, and social aspects of the Great Depression already.  Separately, we also looked at 1930s culture – music, movies, art, etc.  Neither I nor they had made any direct or explicit connections between the Great Depression and what was going on in the culture of America at that time.  I designed a short answer in which I asked them to find the connections and explain how the culture of the 1930s reflected the Great Depression. Since we hadn’t addressed this, I thought it would require them to think critically about how what they’d learned in one area connected with what they’d learned in another area, i.e. bridge the gap.

When I read through their responses, I went from frustrated to bewildered to exasperated to I don’t know what.  You see, many of my students wrote lovely responses on the culture of the 1930s.  They filled their responses with lots of specific factual information, something I require. They could tell me names of artists and their artwork.  They could tell me about that artwork.  Very nice responses were written about Edward Hopper’s moody and isolating Room in New York (1932).  (I love Edward Hopper, don’t you?)  What they didn’t tell me, however, was how that painting reflected the Great Depression.  They could tell me in detail about various films of the 1930s from Gone With the Wind to The Wizard of Oz to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What they didn’t tell me, however, was how those films connected to the Great Depression.  What they didn’t do was answer the question at hand; they didn’t bridge the gap.

After reading response after response, and writing the same feedback comments on nearly all, I had one of those facepalm moments, albeit figuratively not literally.  I realized they didn’t see the gap, and thus, they didn’t know they were supposed to be minding it.  They learned about culture in the 1930s.  The question asked about culture in the 1930s, at least generally speaking, and thus they told me all they knew about it, which in many cases was quite a bit.  Case closed.  Can I have my A now, please?

What to do?  Show them the gap and then tell them to mind it.  Before returning their assessments, I put “Mind the Gap” in nice big letters on my SmartBoard, below which was the short answer question with which they had struggled.  I went through what the phrase meant in this context and why it was so important, to me and to them.  Then, we talked. We discussed what they had learned about the Great Depression.  Then, we discussed what they had learned about 1930s culture.  We discussed what the question was asking them to do with that information, and we identified the gap.  Then, we discussed how good responses would bridge the gap.  They rewrote their responses, and only then, did they get their original work back for comparison purposes.

In the end, the students realized exactly what they were tasked with doing and could indeed critically think their way through the problem at hand.  But heavens, am I going to have to remind them daily to do this, I wondered.  In short, yes.  Yes, I will have to remind them constantly to mind the gap.  Why?  There’s no easy answer, but here’s a few possibilities.  First, they aren’t used to it.  Most students are great memorizers, at least in the short-term, and they are used to simply memorizing information and spitting it back. They have been trained for good or ill to do this, and that’s their fallback position.  Second, they are high school students who spend 47 minutes in each of 7 classes a day, moving quickly from one subject matter and one teacher to another on a rotating schedule. Expectations in one class are not the same in another (nor should they be), and thus, they need to be reminded what it is I want from them.  Third, I need to remind myself when creating the lesson or assessment to create the gaps.  Is it any wonder they need to be reminded to fill them? And finally, yes, at some point they will internalize it, but it will happen for different students at different times.  Some of them already have done this, but I can’t just leave the ones who haven’t to fend for themselves.

So please, mind the gap, but don’t forget to tell your students to do so as well.




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