Pathway-ED: Smoothing the educational paths rather than plugging the gaps

Stuart Middleton
7 July 2011

In the world of DIY there are products along the lines of NO GAPS which allow you to deal with gaps as they appear or even in new work to maintain those continuous lines and surfaces that lead to a quality finish. 

Continuity of progress is central to students achieving a good result and a gap in the educational journey is disruptive, counter-productive and in some cases the cause of failure and disengagement. The cumulative gaps lead to loads that many students simply cannot endure.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is cognitive: as Vygotsky described it, there is a “zone of proximal development”, a point at which students can with help learn. It occurs just on the edge, the fringe, of previous learning not at some spot that is removed from it or distant to it. Therefore the connection to previous learning is critical. Seamlessness in educational journeys is all.

Many students fail early in their further and higher education for this reason alone. There is a disconnection between their previous learning and what they are now encountering. This might be one of generally inadequate academic preparation or it might be a disciple deficiency. Or it might be the result of poor teaching either before or after the transition from school to post-school. As an educational issue it is serious, is often ignored and is generally seen as the fault of the student.

So getting a “no gaps” mentality into the educational system will require a far greater effort on the part of further and higher education and pose some challenges to the high school sector.

Of course, some higher education institutions simply keep raising the requirements for entry into courses and eventually will have made entry too difficult for such a number of students with the result that they will have taken themselves to a place where students entering courses are prepared to cope with whatever they are thrown. This also enables them to dispense with the support mechanisms required by higher maintenance students. It will depress their numbers and results with under-represented groups but there will be other institutions to pick up that responsibility.

Funding formulae for further and higher education that does not adequately reflect the efforts required to see that there are NO GAPS are simply not adequate. Similarly in high schools there has to be recognition that social class, the way we distribute ethnicity throughout a city and the challenges of low or no income groups make the provision of education in some schools a far greater responsibility and a far harder task than in some other schools. To fund school equally is to fund them unequally.

But gaps are not only the result of inadequate academic preparation or misplaced accuracy in assessing the needs of students, there is also the designer gap as in the “gap year”. Origninally this was the domain of the soft upper classes in the UK who were generally succeeding and were not troubled at all by a gap in the journey. But it has become a notion that not only has spread but which is admired and condoned. “My son / daughter is taking time out / finding their feet / deciding what to do….” and so on are official gaps and the evidence is ambivalent as to how this aids progress.

The final arguments for NO GAPS approach  hinge around clear evidence that if a student proceeds through school and into a postsecondary qualification without a gap they are highly likely to also undertake and complete a further qualification at a level in advance of the first qualification completed after leaving school. The road to advanced qualifications is perhaps one characterised by NO GAPS.

It could be that a “lifelong learner” is the result of this smooth and uninterrupted journey from the novitiate of the early years through to the advanced state of being a self-sufficient learner at a later age and a higher stage. The American Dream of a college degree for all has become the nightmare that it is because this smooth passage through educational stages is seriously disrupted. A great confusion of gaps characterises the community college where qualifications are significantly marked by remediation.

Most do-it-yourself exponents will tell you that those NO GAPS products have limits and their success relies on a solid structure each side of the gap and there are limits to the gaps they can close. My Dad was always saying of a extension he made to our house many years ago that should an earthquake occur we were would in trouble – “all the putty will fall out!” he would say.

Too many students face this threat when the seismic transitions they are asked to make give them a good shake-up. You can’t fill large educational gaps through some quick fix.

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