Just an arm’s distance away: A reflection on working to shrink the experience gap

After reading the passage below, please select the answer choice that best describes what you predict would happen next.

A class of students is out of the classroom in an art museum.  They are inspecting the priceless art pieces on display for elements of line, shape, and color.  Excitement bubbles as some students eagerly point out the diagonal lines that indicate movement, while others diligently sketch the geometric shapes they find tucked in the crevices of the painting.  Gentle reminders of, “please point with your finger, not your pencil,” or, “let’s whisper,” are on a loop, but all in all, we’re moving along at a great clip.  Then a well-meaning docent walks by and says, “Please remember to stay an arm’s distance away from the art.”

Which of the following do you predict would happen next?  

A. The students nod in response and continue their exploration.

B. A student sticks out his arm, touches the painting, and moves to stand precisely one arm’s distance away, earnestly following the directions exactly as they were given.  Which, of course, incites a mild panic in every adult in the room.

Did you choose A?  B?

As an experiential educator who takes students out of the classroom nearly every day, I can comfortably say that choice A happens way, WAY more often than choice B.  But B does happen.

And when B happens, my heart does some adrenaline-induced gymnastics on behalf of the mortified docent, and then it immediately breaks on behalf of my bewildered student.  Once I piece my heart back together, I am reminded of why I do what I do.

This is a perfectly-imperfect learning moment that would not make an appearance had we been learning inside the classroom.  This is a moment to close an experience gap for this child.

Yes, the student made a grave error by touching the art, but it illuminated a gap in his knowledge.  This might be the student’s first time at a museum.  Or his first time looking at art.  Or his first time approximating the length of his arm.

But what an incredible moment this is to help construct an enduring understanding in this child’s mind about appropriate ways to engage with art.  And the situations in which this newly-built understanding is applicable?  Countless.

I do what I do so learning experiences like this are a literal arm’s distance away from my students.

Not every student gets the opportunity to learn outside the classroom, which adds yet another type of gap to the education gap list—the opportunity gap.  As edglossary defines it, the opportunity gap “refers to inputs—the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities.” Said another way, the wider the array of experiences a student has, the more tools s/he has to navigate and respond to the surrounding world.

The opportunity gap comes in many forms, including financial, prejudicial, and lingual barriers a student may face.  But for this post, I will explore a portion of the opportunity gap that we call the experience gap, which is a gap in a student’s exposure.  At Live It Learn It, we survey our students every time we take them out of the classroom, and consistently find that 70% of our DC students had never been to that particular DC destination before.  This creates an experience gap.

So what can we do, as formal or informal educators, to shrink the experience gap?  

It is important to also acknowledge that there is no skill too small to teach.  Each time we fill-in the gaps in tiny skills as educators, we are moving the needle on the experience gap.  The tiny skills can be anything, like how to wait in a line, how to gauge an acceptable volume in a space, how to show respect to those around us, how and when it is acceptable to speak to new people, how to manage arms and legs in a crowd..the list goes on and on.

I continuously learn how to do my job of teaching students inside and outside the classroom, but I’ve landed on a few action steps anyone can take if you’re interested in planning a learning experience outside the classroom and shrinking the experience gap.

  1. Examine your own gaps–know what you don’t know 

When I first started at Live It Learn It, I had been a resident of Washington, DC for a whole day.  So my gaps were huge.  I didn’t know how to load money on my Metro card.  Or how to know if I was traveling north or south or east or west on the train.  Or that there was more than one Smithsonian museum.

My entire job was to lead groups of students through lessons outside of the classroom, and the city I was to do that in was totally foreign to me.  So I became a voracious learner of the city because I had to know what I didn’t know.  I assumed I knew almost nothing (which was 100% true), checked my ego, and started thinking about what I’d need to learn to be successful with students.

2. “Go meta” and close your gaps about the space

Once I knew what I didn’t know, I had to learn.  I found this part is most comfortably done ahead of time, alone, and in person, if possible.  It can be embarrassing or vulnerable to be the leader of a group of students and feel only a quarter-step ahead of the group in figuring out the space.

So I showed up at the place I wanted to learn and walked through, trying to answer as many questions for myself as possible.  Here is a (not-so) casual list of questions you could use to “go meta:”

  • Where am I on a map?
  • Where are the entrances? The bathrooms?
  • Are there places where you can pull your group over and regroup if needed?
  • Are there traffic bottlenecks one should avoid?  
  • Do you have cell service in the space?  
  • Does the building have special stipulations for what one can and cannot bring inside?
  • What challenges did I face accessing this space as an adult that would be worth previewing for students?
  • What do I see others doing in the space that I’d like to replicate with my own students?
  • What do I see others doing in the space that I’d like to avoid with my own students?

3. Anticipate student gaps

After closing some of my own gaps, I had to forecast what my students would and would not know.  And as I mentioned earlier, there is no skill that is too small to teach.

One of my biggest in-museum mishaps happened when I assumed my students knew how to “take one and pass” a stack of worksheets.  The first child kept 27 copies and passed three copies to his left.  The student that received those three copies then passed all three copies to her left, keeping none for herself.  The amount of swapping and snatching that happened in the next minute was breathtaking.

So, what skills can you pre-teach? How will you respond to a gap in their knowledge that will inevitably rise to the surface?  What can you bring with you or organize ahead of time to set both yourself and your students up for success?

Keep the solutions as simple and straightforward as you can, and avoid introducing too many novel tasks for students when you’re outside the classroom. Instead of doing “take one and pass” I should have pre-loaded the student clipboards with the worksheets or taught “take one and pass” in the classroom.

4. Plan a learning experience outside the classroom 

I am lucky that I have the infrastructure of my organization to support me with this, but I don’t think you have to go across town to the art museum or take a bus to the closest nature center to start closing the experience gap.

What is in your vicinity that can provide as a backdrop on which you can close experience gaps with your students?  It could be as simple as taking a walk around the block and students taking an inventory of what they observe in their community.  Virtual field trips, like this one at the National Museum of Natural History can be an intermediate step.  Google Arts & Culture allows for you to virtually walk through museums and look closely at the art pieces.

Okay, but this sounds like a lot of work.  Is it worth it?

There are a staggering number of arguments that could be made against taking students out of the classroom to learn.  But, I mean, look at this face.

When we decrease the distance between our students and the outside world, we decrease the experience gap.  They’re just an arm’s distance away.

What are some examples of learning experiences you would like to be able to have with your students? Comment below!

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