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Aurora Institute

Filling in the Gaps (Part 2)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

This is the second article on Sal Khan’s The One World Schoolhouse. In the first piece, I highlighted the chapters on what is mastery-based learning and highlights of cognitive learning.

Sal Khan speaks of repairing the gaps. Not only does he believe they can be repaired, but that it is essential to do so. Khan also begins to raise important questions about where the responsibility lies for filling the gaps. However, here I think he could have gone much farther. One of the biggest issues that continues to challenge us in competency-based education is related to filling in the gaps.

  • Who should be responsible for identifying them, and when? Is it up to the current teacher to identify when there are gaps and misconceptions?
  • Who should be responsible for filling in gaps of knowledge and skills? Is it the teacher who recognizes that there are gaps? Is it a shared responsibility of the current teacher and the next as students continue to advance based on age to ensure that plans and strategies are in place (so the student eventually closes in to being ‘on-track’)? Is it a collective responsibility of the school?
  • Which gaps in knowledge and skills should be filled? Is it seen through the lens of the standards, focusing only on the power standards? Is it those that are considered pre-requisites to the grade level standards? (See article on the concept of anchoring.) Is demonstrating proficiency on each and every standard important for graduation, or are we going to use a higher level concept of competencies while understanding that there may be some gaps? But then the question remains, how many gaps is too many?
  • How should they be filled? If we rule out tracking with students working at their lowest performance  (grade) level (unless this is considered the best approach on a case-by-case basis), what are the best instructional strategies to use? Educators will always refer to scaffolding in this conversaion. However I’m concerned that too often we consider scaffolding a way of accessing curriculum as if it were simply a ladder to climb up to higher level course work. In worst cases, scaffolding can refer to dropping down to a lower-level text without ever actually building up reading skills. Neither are designed to ensure that the gaps are repaired. Couldn’t we also consider a comprehensive scaffold by which students could also climb down, over, and every which way to fully repair their gaps?

Where Khan pushes my thinking is when he suggests that students need to take an active stance in their learning and take some responsibility for addressing gaps. They shouldn’t just take things in; they should figure them out. This sounds similar to the concept of ‘productive struggle,’ but there’s a problem. Blindspots: none of us know or can know what we don’t know at any one point in time. With very, very strong metacognitive skills, we might be able to identify where we get in trouble in sorting things through. We can write down our assumptions and then check if they are correct using other sources or colleagues. However, for children and teens building their metacognitive skills, this is beyond the zone of proximal development.

As I pushed myself in imagining what it might mean for students to take responsibility for filling gaps, I realized it could be grounded in learning to ask questions (e.g., Do I know all the prerequisite skills for this task? What might I need to refresh or practice to warm myself up?) or to access structures (e.g., the transparent learner continua being used at Kettle Moraine and Waukesha STEM Academy show exactly what students know, where they are working on, and their opportunities for moving forward).

I am reminded of my niece, who has the gift of a photographic memory and remembers pretty much everything she has ever read or seen. She is rarely wrong and, when proven to be so, she asks, “Now, why would have I thought that?” as she reflects on what experience or source led her toward a misconception.

There are two other concepts in this section worth noting: portability and tempo. Khan introduces the idea of portability as the ability to learn anytime and anyplace. It’s a powerful concept and one that we might consider exploring, as there is value in ensuring that students have opportunities for real-world learning and building relationships with adults in the workplace and community.

Khan introduces tempo – the same person will learn at different rates on different days or when dealing with different subjects – as synonymous with self-paced. However, the word pace has a very special meaning in competency-based schools. Pace, or the rate of learning, is one of the primary indicators for ensuring that students are receiving the support necessary to grow and progress. But it’s not progress at any rate, it’s progressing at a rate of one performance level per year or more. (Please note: This idea of the expected rate of learning is based on the hypotheses of state standards of how much can and should be learned within a year. However, they are hypotheses the could be proven to not be viable as we think more deeply about what it means to integrate more personalization and deeper learning.) This way, students who have gaps have the opportunity to repair them, are able to learn the higher level standards because they have the toolbox of skills they need, and are on a trajectory toward graduation by eighteen (or close to it, as no teenager wants to spend more time in high school).

I think the concept of tempo is really important. We need to create our own language of educational tempo that is four-dimensional, accounting for so-called speed of learning, the distance in terms of the extensiveness of the gaps being repaired in pursuit of the task at hand, the depth of learning, and the personalization or enrichment in which students have the opportunity to pursue aspects that are of particular interest to them. My hope is that we can build deeper understanding of tempo or the way students are learning at any given moment as different to pace, which is the rate of learning over a given period of time.

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