Education Opinion

The Key to Working With Adult Learners: Mind the Gap

By Elena Aguilar — February 28, 2018 5 min read
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Whether we’re teaching little people, or adults, I think we’re all trying to figure out the same thing: How do we get other people to do something, stop doing something, or do something different? How do we get kids to write their names at the top of their paper or clean up after themselves or explain their mathematical reasoning? How do we get teachers to try new instructional strategies or stop talking so much or notice their students’ strengths?

We who work in human development seek to expand someone’s ability to do something.

The question then is how. How do we expand someone’s ability? How do we get people to do something? The answer to this “how” lies in our analysis of the problem, in how we think about why they aren’t doing what we think they should do. I’m going to re-share a tool for analysis that can transform your thinking about how to help another person change, learn, or grow (I originally shared this concept here some years ago—and it’s worth reading in addition to this blog). Your thinking directs your action, so with different thoughts, you’ll do different things, and see different results.

When a Teacher Seems Resistant

Let’s consider an example. Say you’re coaching a teacher around increasing student engagement and you’ve described a number of strategies that she could use to get students excited about a topic, get into the lesson, make meaning of the material and connect it to past and future learning. You’re offered her copies from your favorite texts that describe how to do a think-pair share, organize a fishbowl discussion or a Socratic seminar, and so on. And she’s not doing any of them. She says, “I tried that fishbowl thing and it didn’t work,” and now she seems unwilling to try anything else.

If you’re like many of us, you’ll start thinking she’s resistant. After all, she’s not doing anything different, right? But you might also be confused because she said she wanted to work on this—she asked for your coaching in this area. So what’s going on?

Here’s where this thinking tool comes in. This tool, that I’ve named, Mind the Gap, (download the graphic here and an extended description of it here) directs us to pay attention to the gap between current reality and desired ability. If the teacher truly does want to work on the area that you’re working on, then this tool helps us think about why she’s not making that growth. This framework proposes that we can parse into six groups the things interfering with our ability to do something. This helps us get clear on what needs to be learned and offers insight into entry points to start that learning.

So the teacher who isn’t taking up your suggestions might have a skill gap—her classroom management skills might be too rudimentary for her to facilitate a fishbowl discussion and so when she tried it the kids didn’t get enough scaffolding and clear direction about behavior and it got chaotic. She may have a knowledge gap that’s playing a role in her inability to facilitate a Socratic seminar—those are hard to do if you’ve only read about them and never seen one. She may have a capacity gap—perhaps she’s a first year teacher who is working on so many areas of her practice that she is just stretched too thin to take on this learning right now. Perhaps she has an emotional intelligence gap—the sound of 30 students talking animatedly to each other makes her feel anxious or she’s just afraid of what would happen if she tried a Socratic seminar and it didn’t go well. Maybe she has a cultural competence gap and she’s afraid that “this group” of students (who are not from her cultural background) would get out of control if she invited them to do a chalk talk activity out of their seats.

Yes, there is such thing as a will gap but I truly believe they are very rare. It’s far more common for us to have skill gaps that show up as will gaps—because most of us are embarrassed about saying we don’t know how to do something, so we demonstrate a lack of willingness. (You can read more on my thoughts on will gaps here.)

How to Use This Tool

There is a lot to say and explain about how to use this tool—in fact, I’m developing an entire online course about how to understand and use it. But what’s perhaps most useful to know about this tool is that it offers you a way to think that allows you to find many more options for action—that allows you explore which gaps someone might have, and how you might be able to help them close it. If you suspect that a teacher is not trying a fishbowl because she doesn’t have the foundational management skills, then start there and work your way up to the fishbowl. If you suspect that she’s not trying pair-shares because she feels anxious about losing control of the class, address that anxiety.

Mind the Gap reminds us that when we see that someone is unable to do something that they want to do (or perhaps that we think they need to do) if we look at them as a learner, as someone who requires a set of things (skill, knowledge, capacity, will, emotional intelligence and cultural competence) in order to have an ability, then we can see opportunities for helping them grow. We remember that they are learners. We take the stance of guiding learning—rather than fighting resistance.

Related Tip: It’s really helpful to surface your suspicions with your client or coachee about their gaps and get them to think about themselves as learners. Don’t jump to conclusions about their gaps and whenever possible, get them to be active learners who participate in charting their own courses for growth.

A Short Origin Story for This Tool

Many years ago, I heard about this concept of “the gaps.” I was introduced to the idea of will, skill, knowledge, capacity, and emotional intelligence gaps. I have never been able to trace where this idea came from—otherwise I would give credit where credit is due. I took this idea, made a basic graphic, and started sharing the concept with all who were interested. I helped coaches and leaders understand how we could use this idea, how to engage with it, and how to use it with others.

After many years of using it and many conversations about it, I reformatted the graphic (now as a pyramid) and added one gap: the cultural competence gap. I’d often wrapped cultural competence into a skill and knowledge domain (it is a skill and knowledge set) but I also felt that by wrapping it in, it’s importance was diluted. And many of the gaps I see in teacher and leader practice are related to cultural competence. So in my 2017 revision of this tool, I decided to make it its own foundational gap.

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.