Summer days are strange…Among relaxing we often find ourselves reflecting on the year that has just ended, planning ahead and occasionally worrying about the hows and whys of our decisions. One of the many things I do during summer is to “tidy” up the creative digital mess of the academic year that has just finished. This often translates into an effort of turning gigabytes of class material into nicely tidied folders. While trying to do so the other day, I came across a number of gap-fill activities I’ve used in my exam lessons for years. Although I’ve seen the same tasks again and again, I caught myself looking at them as if they had never been there before. I started thinking more about the idea of gaps and what we associate with them / expect them to be in our learning environments.
Just like most everyday -seemingly innocuous- words, “gap” is another word we use either in our professional or personal life without really reflecting on what it means or implies.
Out of curiosity (one of the benefits of having time on your hands) I googled the word and looked for images that would come up. Not surprisingly most of them show people, often businessmen, standing at the edge of a (steep) cliff or on either side of cliffs, divided by a wide gap. The space in between is always covered with a veil of uncertainty. If one is to attempt a jump, they can’t predict how big the fall might be or guess what lies on the ground. It seems as though any attempt to cross the gap could be fatal which also explains the looks of worry and despair on people’s face.
Not a good start when you google things out of curiosity.
Images can’t always be reliable I thought, so I turned to my trusted love, dictionaries, to see how the images could possibly relate to the many meanings of the word. Looking the word up, the following definitions were the first 4 to pop up on my screen.
- A gap is a space between two things or a hole in the middle of something solid.
- A gap is a period of time when you are not busy or when you stop doing something that you normally do.
- If there is something missing from a situation that prevents it being complete or satisfactory, you can say that there is a gap.
- A gap between two groups of people, things, or sets of ideas is a big difference between them.
I stopped for a moment and looked at the words that stood out for me. Is it big news that we often associate the meaning of “gap” with the last 2 definitions of it? Isn’t it telling of our times that gaps come to represent a feeling of inadequacy or stand for division and conflict?
I looked at the worksheet again – what is it then that we ask learners (and ourselves) to do? To complete information that is not there, to uncover missing links and connections, to provide answers for the unknown.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a process which can help them practise X, Y, Z or possibly make them more attentive listeners or appreciate the importance of working with context in reading comprehension tasks. The truth though remains the same – gaps become symbols of the cliff, separating students from the goal which can often be seen as unattainable or unrealistic.
What we often miss out on is the opportunity of creatively exploiting the words of the first two definitions – that is “space” and “time”. Space to be filled with what students already know, space for personal growth and development. How often do we encourage our learners to complete the gaps with words of their personal stories? To isolate them from the context of getting something right or wrong and just making such tasks personal. Gaps can be filled or bridged when we remind them of the fact that they can be shaped around them and their needs.
As for time, why can’t gaps represent opportunities for growth? In a world that is constantly spinning notions such as alone time or taking steps back are considered a luxury. What we fail to see however is that losing this connection to our inner needs reinforces feelings of inadequacy. Trapped in webs of expectations set by others, we often end up losing sight of who we really are and what we want to achieve.
Let’s start thinking more of gaps then as spaces of well-deserved time in any journey, learning or not, that we set out on.