LIVINGSTON: Minding the gap as an educational tool

As a school administrator visiting London for the first time a month ago, there were some very specific things I was excited to see and learn about.
Nov 8, 2013


Being a historical fiction fanatic, I was thrilled to see the Tower of London, King Henry’s armor and, of course, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

If you have ever been to London, you know it’s a must to ride a double-decker bus — sitting on the top, of course — and travel by underground train, or tube as the locals call it. I have ridden trains in Chicago and New York many times, so I was expecting the loud wind tunnel associated with the subway, graffiti littering the walls and a booming recording announcing the stations.

As I mentioned, this was my first trip to London, so you can only imagine my surprise and delight with the pristine train stations, framed artwork on the walls, and the most charming British voice calling out the stops and reminding the riders to “please mind the gap.” I had to sit up and listen a second time when the doors opened to see if I had heard it right.

As a school principal, I am always looking for ways to “close the gap” — the achievement gap, that is. However, maybe closing the gap isn’t what it’s all about. Maybe we need to “mind” or pay attention to what the gap really is.

My No. 1 priority in London was to visit the American School and meet with small groups of teachers and administrators from around the world on the topic of building a culture of thinking and learning. I was excited to share my perspective from the vantage point of Mary A. White Elementary School right here in Grand Haven.

So, after months of gathering materials and planning for my presentation, I was confident I could help teachers and principals understand how building a culture dedicated to thinking could help raise scores and, of course, help close that ever-too-present “achievement gap."

Listening to David Perkins — professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education — give a keynote address, I jotted down what seems to make sense when paying attention to learning. I began to wonder: If the students of today are faced with a less-than-ideal achievement gap based on their socioeconomic status, race, gender or ethnicity, is it really possible to plug those achievement gaps without first closing the “relevance” gap? 

Think about it for a minute. If we tune our teaching to the needs of students today with the understanding that we live in a complex world where information is just a click away, might we create relevance for our students, and focus on what matters in their lives today by teaching them how to look at issues with a global perspective? Might we model and teach empathy as a way to equip our children and young adults to understand world issues?

And, because in 2013 there is far too much information available at our fingertips and issues are more complex than ever, might we teach students to use the content as a platform for collaboration and communication as a way to balance what is most important?

Heidi Hayes Jacobs, author of "Curriculum 21," encourages us to shift our thinking from valuing right answers as the purpose for learning, to knowing how to behave when we don’t know answers, as life in the real world demands multiple ways to do something well.

In this ever-changing world, we, as educators, constantly pause and consider what we are doing with our instruction and how we are delivering it. Minding the gap allows us to ensure that we are constantly refining our craft to make learning meaningful to all students.

Valerie Livingston is principal of Mary A. White Elementary School.



Who's paying for this trip? Who's minding the store when he's traveling, hopefully at his expense.


Sounds like a business trip to me...this principal was obviously there to investigate how educational systems in London could be applied here and she is accountable to her board for coming back with information and utilizing it in the district schools...this should not be a personal expense...

R. Vanderhoo

The Principal paid her own way so she could learn and help the district move to being a education destination.


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