Mind the gap

Ms N Smith, Dean of Studies & Planning

I overheard a teacher recently discussing a writing task submitted and the student’s lack of appropriate punctuation. She described her sense, while reading, of having ‘no room to breathe’, as the sentences flowed one after another in one continuous paragraph.

I was reminded of something that students of Japanese struggle with when they first encounter Japanese writing — the lack of space between words. Imagine reading this paragraph if there were no spaces between words. Where does one word end and the next one begin? Reading something when one cannot find the space to draw breath is difficult. As I thought a little further, I realised that the space between the lines of text is also important. Too little space allowed and the lines are all crammed together and the meaning is difficult to decipher. Too much space and the connections between characters and words are lost, rendering the passage ultimately meaningless, simply a collection of isolated words and characters.

When introducing students to Japanese texts, we teach them to recognise the particles in the sentence — the small one syllable characters after which a breath can be drawn and meaning can be made of the sentence. I am reminded that my Japanese students need to be shown or taught where to find the space, where to create the gap, so they can breathe and the meaning can become clear.
Finding the space, the gaps in which to breathe, in order to find meaning is important in all learning.

In her poem ‘Fire’, Judy Brown (cited in Brady, 2003) speaks of the importance of space:

What makes a fire burn
is the space between the logs,
a breathing space.


But the problem with space, rather perhaps the problem with us, is that too often we equate space with emptiness and our response is to fill it. Fill it with words, fill it with objects, fill it with people, fill it with activities. Whether it be checking Facebook updates for the latest celebrity news, or watching the latest reality TV show, or renovating ‘the block’, or being a master chef ruling the kitchen, we live lives filled to overflowing.

We’re so overloaded with voices, messages and blogs telling us stuff and more stuff, sometimes it seems we need background noise or constant distraction to function. (Schlegel, 2013)

Then there is our emphasis on productivity. As Dawson (2003) warns, we now have the ‘generation of a frantic culture of overwork that is now taken for granted, or grudgingly tolerated as the natural mode of working life’.

The danger in all this frantic, endless activity is superficiality when it comes to learning (Hart, 2004). Superficiality allows us to miss the opportunities for deeper understanding and more meaningful application.

Too often teachers lament that many students seem interested, concerned or pre-occupied as to whether what they are going to study in the next unit will be on the test, signifying that the subject matter is seen as a means to an end, something that is to be assessed and then forgotten as we move to the next unit. And too often teachers lament the lack of connection students make between their various subjects across their learning. Woods (2013) speaks of ‘silo mindsets’ where students derive their identity from the discipline divisions that exist in schools. Learning is then is reduced to a check-list of finite chunks of information to be learnt for the next test or assignment and then forgotten.

Can part of the problem be that during the school day, and in our classes, the space required for students to make these connections between their subjects and their learning is lacking? That there is no space for the space required?

Connections between learning and deeper understanding require both space and time. We know that depth in learning implies higher-order understanding and application, creativity, problem-solving, and self-reflection. ‘Deep encounters with knowledge and with one another have the potential to transform the learner and the process of learning’ (Hart, 2004).

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood. (Brown cited in Brady, 2003)

How can this space be created? What would it look like if we invited students to ponder the questions that they want answers to? Can we encourage students to sit in the grey, the ‘unknowing’? The ‘unknowing’ is an uncomfortable space to sit in, but is actually the space from where deep understanding can come.

Too often, as students, we want the easy answer, the quick answer, so we can move onto the next thing. As teachers, too, giving the answer is easy, as it allows us to go on and continue with the curriculum that students must know before their test. However, this emphasis on one right answer often works against depth of exploration. The result is that neither teachers nor students are willing to undertake risks for understanding; instead, they content themselves with correct answer compromises (Hart, 2004).

Can we open the space in our classrooms where holding paradoxical or contradictory perspectives long enough may frustrate and transform normal thinking (Hart, 2004)?

Studies of creative individuals, from Mozart to Einstein, give us clues that, although analytic practices are important and often necessary, they are insufficient to explain the depths of creativity and insight. Similarly, disciplines ranging from literary analysis to cognitive psychology identify the important function of gaps in the learning and inventive process. It is these cognitive gaps or spaces that allow for the possibility of conceptual flexibility and multiplicity (Hart, 2004). Creativity takes quiet time and a sense of space to encounter it with our full attention (Dawson, 2003).

What we know of effective learning is that the predominant factor is not merely time on task; it is the quality of attention brought to that task. Studies show that performance, behaviour and depth are tied to attention (Hart, 2004). As teachers, we quickly recognise that a student’s ability to direct and sustain her attention towards a task has a direct impact on her success. If our attention is somewhere else, scattered or racing perhaps, we may have little capacity to be present (Hart, 2004).

I know that the success of my lesson is influenced by not only how I come to it, by what my attention is focused on, but also by how my students turn up to it. Do they come fresh and ready to learn Japanese; or do they come pre-occupied with a range of concerns about the coming weeks and tasks that need to be addressed, particularly at this time of term? How many assignments they have, when the next one is due, how difficult their last one was. While they are present physically in my classroom, are they present to the task at hand?

Our job as teachers, parents and students is to find that all important balance between fuel and space, between facts and learning, to find the gaps to breathe and find meaning, so that the fire of deep understanding can ignite and burn passionately.

A fire
simply because the space is there
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way. (Brown cited in Brady, 2005)


Brady, R. (2005). Learning to stop; stopping to learn: Embarking on the contemplative learning path. Retrieved from http://mindfuleducation.org/Brady.pdf

Dawson, J. (2003). Reflectivity, creativity, and the space for silence. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 4(1), 33–39.

Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of Transformative Education, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.mindfuleducation.org/resources.html

Schlegel, S. (2013, May 18). Getting in touch with the sound of silence. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/times-opinion/index.ssf/2013/05/schlegel_getting_in_touch_with.html

Woods, S. (2013, May 30). The deficiencies of disciplines. BGGS News, 31(16). Retrieved from https://www.bggs.qld.edu.au/2013/05/disciplines/

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