The Accelerated Narrowing of the Gaps Method
A Summary by Nissim (Max) Cohen
A. We assume, and we also believe, that, except for a very small portion (a tiny percentage) of students, everyone can succeed in school and produce impressive achievements. R.Sullivan (1986) believes that very student who is not mentally retarded from the organic standpoint can learn and can attain impressive results. Some children need more help than others, or different approaches, or a different rhythm; however, one way or another, every student can succeed at school. These assumptions are also the basis of the plans and schools of such experts as, for instance, Sizer (1993) and Henry-Levine (1984). We assume that the cognitive ability required for scholastic achievement is within every student’s grasp. In our approach, we also assume that all human beings, including students, utilize only a small fraction of their cognitive potential.
B. Every September, thousands of pupils begin their schooling in grade one. The pupils and their parents and siblings are highly motivated and very excited, and their excitement is accompanied by very high expectations from the school – expectations of scholastic achievements, happiness, acquisition of knowledge, self-realization, utilization of cognitive potential and the paving of the way toward future success through scholastic performance. However, for some pupils, as we all know, something happens that should really be prevented: After a few short weeks or months, the dream and the hope vanish ! Some of the pupils begin to “wobble” and to accumulate “scholastic failures,” which are, for the most part, “public” and daily and are expressed in tests and quizzes (even the informal ones) in a number of subjects; in some cases, these failures are documented and conceptualized into grades or written assessments, presented in evaluation documents to their parents, who, only a short while before, had been full of hope.
Nonetheless, pupils who still do not know how to read or write and who lack – or have a poor grasp of – basic skills in mathematics or other subjects will be promoted to grade two and subsequently to more senior classes, with some of them continuing to accumulate failures with varying levels of consistency. The school system tends to brand these pupils “under-achievers,” or grants them some other label. Because of the continuing sequence of past failures, these pupils develop a false, mistaken self-image according to which their capacity for scholastic excellence is low. This false and limiting subjective attitude develops as a process over the years, during which time the students accumulate failure after failure, and it is reinforced with each new “failure.” This “false selfawareness” of the “unsuccessful students” is transmitted in concentric circles to classmates, to peers, to the parents, to the teaching team, to the school’s administration, and so forth. Thus, an interactive, symbolic process develops. The “underachiever” students have no control over this process, and it serves as a vicious circle that is reinforced with each additional “failure,” leads to a lack of motivation and produces ever-increasing despair among the students, their parents and teachers.
In most cases, in the wake of these developments, the students are channeled into low-level classroom groups in junior high school (at times, an informal channeling begins as early as elementary school) and into low-achievement-oriented learning programs (in secondary schools), where the curriculum lacks any future relevant continuity orientation and “broadcasts” a low level of expectations and where the teaching is “minimal.” As a result, and because of an increasing lack of motivation, the learning gap between the “low-achievers” and the “achievers” steadily grows until it reaches proportions that are almost impossible to reduce, even technically, except with unique, complex methods. Thus, as experience teaches us, the learning gap in grade 8 between the students in two classroom groups in mathematics (level-A and level-C respectively) will usually be at least one entire scholastic year and, in many cases, much more.
C. The subjective feeling of failure that haunts these “unsuccessful students” contradicts the demands of their school according to which they must fulfill their role as students and must make impressive scholastic attainments. In the wake of this contradiction, “underachievers” develop a cognitive dissonance, from which they escape by means of rationalizations that express themselves in nonconformist behavior or in declarations that school is a waste of time, that the particular subject in which they are receiving low marks is useless anyway, etc. The next step is to become a hidden dropout and that can be followed, because of considerations of immediate profit and loss (according to Bodon, 1973), by actually dropping out of school. This latter step is usually taken by students who are in the lowest class groups and programs at school, especially during the transition from grade 9 to grade 10. (Thus, the lowest class group serves as the most promising “warehouse of dropouts.”) The next stage could even be deviant social behavior as an illegitimate alternative to both the scholastic success the dropout has been unable to attain and the obtaining of legitimate goals (R. Merton, 1971). This deviant behavior can serve as a configurationreaction mechanism (according to A. Cohen, 1967) that expresses feelings of anger, alienation and revenge toward the “system” and which also explains the “bad” conduct of those who belong to the criminal subculture (A. Cohen, 1963).
At the individual level, students are discouraged and frustrated by their accumulation of failed grades and by achievement gaps that begin as early as the initial stages of schooling and continue with the assignment of the “poor” students to low-level classroom groups and programs (although such classroom groups are officially prohibited in elementary school and in grade 7 of junior high school). This process has negative and long-range ramifications for the self-image of these students, for their abilities (as well as the way others perceive their abilities), for their status and for their future careers. Because of their lack of upward mobility toward higher-level class groups, it already dooms them at an early stage! The feelings of discouragement are shared by the parents, who sometimes blame themselves for their child's failure.
At the social level, one cannot overlook the learning gaps that widen from one generation to the next between Jews of Sephardic origin and Jews of Ashkenazic origin nor can one overlook the correspondence between failure at school and ethnic origin among second-and third-generation Israelis (see Y. Nahon, 1984). The principal features of this reality are: (a) a loss of human capital in a society where human capital is one of its main resources (b) a serious undermining of social solidarity and an increase in the ethnic/social gap in Israel.
At the level of the individual school, these facts diminish and even impair the meritocracy that should exist there and emphasize this process' reproductive nature, which is difficult to ignore, despite the desire to eradicate it and despite the efforts made over the years in that direction.
D. In light of research findings (see J.K. Heren, 1990), it can be concluded that the reasons for lack of scholastic success (which is often conceptualized through dropping out from school) are not primarily cognitive but are rather sociological, cultural, psychosocial, systemic and organizational. Roughly speaking, the contributing factors belong to two categories:
1. In-school independent variables – Variables such as the school's organizational structure:
Programs and learning groups that “tag” students and produce the “dummy effect”; and “shallow” irrelevant curricula that lack a future-oriented, challenging orientation, express a low level of expectations, “suppress” the student's cognitive potential and lead to instrumental “failure.” Among the in-school factors, one can cite the phenomenon of “anonymity” to which Sizer refers.
2. External independent variables – Factors that the school sometimes maintains are beyond its control, such as, for example, the influence of the student's residential surroundings; lack of support from significant others; absence of positive models the student can emulate; emotional reasons connected with the student's personality; or the particular circumstances of the student's life. The impact of factors belonging to this category increases in elementary schools where screening mechanisms such as classroom groups and learning programs are not employed as a matter of principle.
We believe that such a situation is not
“something that has been determined by fate”
“something that has been determined by fate”
and that it can and – from the moral, civic and social standpoints –
must be changed through ongoing, joint efforts
Learning gaps begin in elementary school and then intensify in junior and senior high school. Apparently, the most effective way of dealing with them is through preventive measures and a continual narrowing of gaps as early as elementary school.
We believe and assume that every child can learn and can succeed at school!
E. The method (a brief outline)
In line with what has been noted above, students who have failed together with their school, who are in danger of “dropping out” of school and who, in some cases, are even indifferent to their situation can be brought to the point where they can succeed scholastically (by universal standards). However, in order to do so, it is obvious that the method of working with students must be different from the one that the school has followed so far and which has, in any case, led the student to failure after failure.
In addition, we assume the following:
1. First and foremost, there is a need for changing and reversing the “false awareness” that takes hold of so-called “underachiever” students (as well as their parents, their teachers, the school administration, their peer group and their classmates) and according to which they are incapable of attaining impressive scholastic achievements.
A change in this “false awareness” can take place apparently if renewed learning processes are introduced (preferably in those subjects perceived as “extra-difficult,” such as mathematics) so that
they can lead these students to a chain of successful scholastic achievements. The success of these achievements must meet universal standards (as measured by matriculation exams and
standards tests). Furthermore, the achievements will be attained over a relatively short period of time, with the student making a large investment and with the activation of a process of internal
“focus control.” There must also be a dialog in which the student will clearly understand the connection between investment and success.
2. The modus operandi must provide a constant holistic solution to the in-school variables that can explain the student's lack of scholastic success. In other words, the curriculum must be challenging and relevant and must promote upward mobility vis-à-vis the school's visible and hidden structures (classroom groups and programs), with the full, genuine support of the school administration and the teaching staff.
3. The modus operandi must provide a constant holistic solution to the external variables that can explain the student's lack of scholastic success. In other words, there is a need for a leader (coordinator) who develops a deep emotional connection with the student and who can serve as a role model for the student to emulate, as a “significant other” and as an “address” for every problem and issue. Furthermore, there must be a diffuse relationship between the teaching team and the student; thus, there is a need for concentrating on a relatively limited number of subjects and on a relatively small number of students for whom the teaching team is responsible. The parents are active partners in the entire process and their consent is required at every stage of the process. The learning process must be conducted on a group basis and in the context of that process a learning group will be developed. That learning group will constitute a social framework that will support learning activities and will offer positive competition to the student's peer group in terms of trying to influence the student (because, sometimes, the norms in the peer group run contrary to the proposed process). Throughout the entire process, the student's culture will be respected and will enjoy total acceptance.
4. Because of the immense learning gaps that these students have accumulated, the renewed learning process – which includes challenging, relevant goals that will promote upward mobility – constitutes in itself the narrowing of a huge learning gap, which can be measured in terms of years of schooling. Thus, apparently, the only way to narrow that gap is accelerated learning.
The accelerated learning process will have two main components:
1) Application of motivational processes by the entire teaching team before and during the learning process (the application will entail the implementation of what has been stated in the preceding
2) Focus on a relatively limited number of subjects, which will be allotted more learning hours than is commonly accepted. (The learning will take place in the evening and in learning marathons.)
A huge thank you must be given to all the many partners that applied this method in the context of various programs: inspectors and many other officials attached to the Ministry of Education at the
district and national levels; heads of education divisions and departments; pedagogical supervisors, supervisors for various disciplines, coordinators, teachers, teaching assistants and all
the others who helped many students attain significant scholastic achievements. Working together, we have all contributed to the consolidation of the belief that is slowly but surely becoming a fact of
life: “Everyone is able".
© All rights reserved for the "Accelerated Narrowing of Gaps" Method ("The Learning Campaign") to Nissim (Max) Cohen, M.A., the method's developer.