Today, when I finished writing an article for the Peace Corps Tonga teaching newsletter, I realized that what I had written was just about the biggest thing I had learned from teaching this semester - predictably, learning it from my own mistakes.
So, here it is.
Bridging the knowledge gap, not falling into it
As I surveyed the eleven upturned faces in my classroom, I was feeling pretty good about myself. The classroom was a paragon of orderliness, my teaching was met with nods, and even some of my antics were rewarded with the occasional laugh or smile. And I had no idea that I was utterly, completely, failing.
I had fallen into the trap so easily that I didn’t even realize it until I saw their assignments; like a bout of tropical indigestion, I felt fine until everything exploded. As I read my students work, it became clearer and clearer: My students weren’t learning anything. This scenario happens over and over: the students can spit back your lists of tips and tricks during class, and yet when you ask them to apply the knowledge, they are suddenly lost and you cry out “but you did it with me in class!”
The hidden curse of learning is the knowledge gap: the irrevocable fact that as soon as you have learned something, you promptly forget what it was like before you knew it. In “Made to Stick,” the authors describe a classic test of the knowledge gap: half of the participants in a study were asked to “tap” out simple songs like “happy birthday,” and the other half were asked to guess the tune. When asked, the “tappers” predicted that the “listeners” would identify 1 out of every 2 songs. They were simple, after all, right? But out of all the songs tapped, the listeners identified 1 out of 40. The huge disparity between what the tappers thought they were communicating and what they actually were communicating was because while their finger drummed the table, the tune was humming along in their head. The listeners just heard a collection of random taps.
In our classrooms, we are often “tappers,” with the tune already in our heads, wondering why the listeners can’t hear the song. This is something to think about: how can we back up, stop tapping, and start really communicating?
Is this happening to you without you knowing it?
To keep watch for the gap, ask the students to apply the learning in a different way during class, without wasting time waiting for homework or projects. Give them time to think and apply, find out immediately how they did, and adjust the rest of your class to helping them learn what they still need to know. Encouraging question-asking in class has its place, but often fails to alert you to what they don’t know to ask, even among the least shy.
Finally, examples often get around the issue of the gap entirely, filling in information you didn’t even think to communicate. In a business-teaching situation, you could define gross margin as “the difference between the sales and production costs including overhead,” (Wikipedia) or you could tell about a farmer needing to know how valuable his tomato crop is. He adds up all the money the tomatoes will bring him at the market and then subtracts everything their growing will cost him, and gets gross margin. Which do you think the students will remember?
In one example, you define what gross margin is used for (how valuable a product can be to you), give the equation (sales - production costs), and even introduce a rudimentary introduction to variable costs (how much he spends growing the tomatoes). In one introductory example, you can cover multiple concepts, all in a way that the students will easily digest.
Don’t be a tapper and lose your students across the knowledge gap. With the right instruction, when you tap out “happy birthday,” they’ll start humming along with you.