Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Learning Gap: Understanding It and Working Toward a Possible Set of Solutions

The Learning Gap: Understanding It

Dear Parents, Educators, Curricular Writers, and Educational Policy Makers,

In the United States, there is something known as The Learning Gap. It occurs in elementary school, when learning is supposed to proceed without interruption, and is terribly distressing in educational circles (as well as to children experiencing the gap from beneath it).

There are two important things to note about this gap. The first thing to note is that it has been documented and exists. The second thing to note is that it is misunderstood.

The learning gap that does exist may vary somewhat from state to state. However, it is helpful to think of this gap as existing due to a fundamental flaw in curriculum and application of curricular theory.

Curricular theory must always take cognitive development into account when curriculum is developed. Curriculum that ignores cognitive development can be counter-productive.

The current problem with the learning gap (as I understand it) is as follows: Curriculum is missing a link to cognitive development at a certain stage of children's development. This results in a situation where the cognitive processing  is either being overloaded or underloaded, resulting in a consequent gap.

The easiest point to make about this is that cognitive processing has many facets. One facet that impacts learning is whether there is enough foundational material processed for a student to move on to the next sequence of content. Too much material can be too demanding and result in a gap. Not enough material, low quality instruction, or not enough time spent on material results in lower absorption/learning of the material.

Too much material with too little scaffolding and too little absorption can quickly become a situation where the student is expected to absorb too much content in too little time. The quality of the teacher can improve the rate at which students learn, to an extent, but cannot overcome an excessive load of material or standards that are too fixed and rigorous.

Conversely, not enough material being completely absorbed and leaving the child idle can result in less time learning, and therefore a smaller foundation. A qualified teacher isn't necessarily prepared to create ten lessons out of material for one lesson.

Striking a balance between the two is the job of curriculum writers and teachers. They must know how much or how little the majority of students can learn and how to pace the material.

Let's assume that, of my three suggested problems (material, teacher quality, and time spent), teacher quality is not the real issue.

If we consider time spent as the issue, and accept that most teachers are able to pace their students adequately after a year or two of practice, we notice that the real gap is between what the students achieve and the expectations foisted on them during the subsequent years. This would suggest a disconnect in the curriculum, time available, and expectations that would have to be reviewed for a better solution.

Let's also consider that the material is to blame. This would suggest a fundamental flaw in the curriculum; whether it has different skill sets or expectations of students at one level than it has for students at the preceding level and requires students to adapt to these changes. Then we would have to search the curriculum as well as requirements and standards to see where these paradigm shifts are affecting students.

There is, fortunately, some research documenting the learning gap in studies of two relevant subjects. I will address this research and the implications of it which may guide us to a better understanding of the gap, and through that to a solution.

However, I would first like to note that from my perspective as a teacher, I consider the learning gap to be related to an issue of cognitive development. Primarily, when teaching languages, it is accepted that the larger the foundational knowledge the faster the student can learn the language (to a point). This holds with cognitive theory. What this suggests for the learning gap is that students are not getting the foundation needed at one level to proceed to the next level equally.

As cognitive theory illustrates, students will develop an initial gap in their first language based on how much of the language they've learned, used, and heard prior to beginning formal study. This gap is not likely to diminish and is a natural extension of that initial foundation. It is essentially given that students who start with the broadest and most completely developed language persist in maintaining the broadest and most completely developed language as others are in a perpetual state of 'catching up.' This is actually natural and should not be a cause for alarm.

Enrichment activities beyond normal schooling can decrease the size of this gap over time. However, this solution is not the best, nor is it possible, for everyone. Additionally, it is not fair to expect some students to forgo free time and study while their peers are playing.

I suggest that The Learning Gap is actually related to this language gap. Students with broader and deeper first language skills and knowledge have less new terms to learn when studying other subjects. This gives them the ability to adapt to new material more quickly and they continue to learn. Other less fortunate students don't have sufficient language breadth and depth, and therefore must learn disproportionately more new terms and spend more time studying and working to achieve the same results.

In effect, I am implying that The Learning Gap can be ameliorated but not annhilated through application of cognitive studies to curriculum, relaxed restrictions on standards,  and an increase in time spent broadening and deepening the first language of at-risk students in the subjects in which they are experiencing learning lag. (Yes, learning lag can feel like jet lag to students, except that it persists and doesn't go away as easily. It essentially becomes a negative affective filter impacting the student's current and future academic performance.)

This is not always likely to happen if children of the same age want to spend the same amount of time with their recreational activities. How can we actually expect children who have to work harder to catch up to forgo recreational activities being enjoyed by their peers? It's unreasonable. Perhaps recreational activities need to be considered in light of how they will reinforce each individual student's weak areas.

The schools themselves, bound by 'standards,' are not able to adapt appropriately to students' needs to address the gaps. It is only when, unfortunately, children fall significantly behind their peers that schools are able to support them. The rest of the students struggle on, unfairly earning lower marks/grades than their peers (which calls into question the validity of the grading system). Perhaps the standards can be re-examined from this perspective.

There are some short-term (and long-term) solutions I'd like to address that may help alleviate The Learning Gap. Since foundational knowledge is critical and linked to first language education, I'll address the issue from these standpoints.

What parents (and teachers) can do:

If you notice your child is behind the learning curve, don't be alarmed. If you feel there is no reason for this, there are some steps you can take that will help your child immensely in the long term. The first and most important thing you can do for your child is let them know that it isn't their fault that they're behind (unless you know that they are not making an effort) if you and the teacher know that they work very hard at school. For yourself, it is important to remember that your child could be at the learning curve of the other students if they had started out with an equally strong first language foundation.

There are a few things that you can do that will help your child immensely in their academic career in the long-term. The first, for very young students, is to help them get an early start with the alphabet and numbers through flash cards. You don't have to study more than a few at a time, and be sure to let the child interact with the cards as they desire, as long as they are not damaging them, which would be counter-productive.

A few times a week is better than not studying at all, and the time you spend on this is partially determined by the interest level displayed by your child and their age. The younger they are, the more interested in the pictures they will be than in the letters or numbers. This is okay. Let them enjoy the cards first.

As they get older, you can spend more time practicing saying the name of the object pictured on the flashcards. Eventually, you will want to start linking the letter or number to the picture when you practice with them. Most children will not sit still for an entire set of cards. It is better to do a few, review them, and put them away for later. Use a few different cards the next time with one or two of the previous cards for review.

Notice that I do not set specific nor prescriptive ages for this. It is entirely determined by the child's ability and interest. Also note that a child who is not interested in the cards is rare, and in such cases it is up to the parent (or teacher) to make the material interesting for the child. Playing games with the cards, such as giving the card to them if they say the name of the picture, the letter, the number, the color, or indicate understanding in some other way, can be a powerful tool. If you have children of about the same age, they can compete for cards in this way.

Cards have an interesting learning curve. Once children are finished with them, they no longer hold interest. Then you put them away and either move to new cards or something else.

The other thing that parents (and teachers) can do to help their children is read. I can't stress the value of reading to your children enough. If possible, both parents should read to their children. This exposes them to a variety of variables associated with reading. It is okay if one parent reads better than the other. Both should still read to their child. This communicates the importance of reading to the child. It is also okay for a parent to get embarassed by their reading ability. This will actually help the child understand that they need to learn to read.

(For example, although Spanish is my second language it is my son's first language. My wife and I both read to him in Spanish and English. Sometimes I am embarassed by my reading in Spanish since it is not perfect. This is okay, because my son hears the difference and sees that I am also learning, which is powerful motivation for him to learn. Through my reading, he also learns to hear and understand his first language differently than he would with his mother, who is a native speaker of Spanish. In effect, my learning is reflected to him which brings him to think about and understand his language better. This should help him immensely in years to come.)

Another important consideration is what you are reading to your child. You should probably vary this between normal topics (short stories about living creatures, plants, and society for children) and imaginary topics. In particular, focus on children's topics your child shows interest in. It's also good to mix in other children's topics your child hasn't heard about before.

Books that train the mouth to make sounds and have absurd, silly, or funny pictures are great for young children (such as those by Dr. Seuss).

Other books that are very useful for young children have wonderful illustrations and explain things in the real world in terms and images that children can relate to or understand (such as those by Richard Scary).

Books that have a lot of pictures are useful for looking at and explaining the pictures to your child. These are also good when your child is inquisitive and wants to ask questions about everything in the picture on the page.

Above I mentioned the variables of reading and think that I should expand on this. It is best if children hear different people reading (and/or explaining the pictures). From the monotone reader (the inexperienced or uncertain) and the imaginative and knowledgeable reader (the one who brings the book to life for the child's imagination) the child learns many things that are not typically part of the curriculum, but that help the child's language development in many ways. Their reading and literacy skills will develop through these examples. Additionally, psychological development will progress.

The research I will soon address, although not specifically conducted for The Learning Gap issue, indicates a direction education can take to alleviate, if not eventually eliminate, The Learning Gap.

Corbin Campbell

P.S. (Perhaps The Learning Gap has disappeared in some places by now. If so, please leave me a comment about where and what was done to eliminate it.)