In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders “Reflecting on Scaffolding.”
Listen as Steve discusses the level of structure and guidance, or “scaffolding”, needed to support student learning.
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Steve Barkley: Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Reflecting on scaffolding. The term scaffold was pulled from the construction building arena. They’re described as a temporary structure for holding workers and materials during the erection building, repair or decoration of a building. That term was then applied to assist teachers in considering how they temporarily built structures and guidance into support student learning. As I have across the last several years explored scaffolding when I’m observing an instruction, I often find two concerns arising, one I would call the lack of necessary scaffolding at times.
I find students in a independent activity where the student has insufficient understanding and background to complete the independent task at a level that is going to be impacting the students learning, but just as often I believe I find the over scaffolding of instruction, so that the scaffolding is actually interfering with the student being engaged in the elements of the learning task that are most likely to cause the greatest increase in student learning gains. As I’ve tried to define what is the underlying issue that leads to the over-scaffolding element, I’m now playing with the exploration that it is the teacher’s focus on the outcome or product, over the teacher’s focus on the learning process.
As a teacher focuses on the learning process, the question that would have to come to the teacher’s mind is what is the appropriate amount of struggle? What’s the positive struggle that gives the payoff for greatest student learning? When the teacher is instead focused on achieving the outcome, the teacher may provide more scaffolding than is necessary as to guarantee that the student has a successful outcome. The more I think about this, the more I’m pondering if the scaffold analogy from construction was an inappropriate one for us to take on, because that scaffolding is present in order to get the outcome, and the scaffolding comes down when the outcome has been achieved.
In learning it is the student struggle at the right level that is going to produce the the maximum amount of learning. In many cases, the teacher needs to start instruction without having the scaffolding in place, and then only by observing the student effort, the student initial signs of progress, or the student’s struggle and student frustration and insufficient indicators of progress, only by observing those things is the teacher actually in a position to design the appropriate scaffolding for that particular student at that particular time.
I think what I frequently see taking place and observations, is that the teacher recognizes that some group of students need a certain level of scaffolding in order for them to successfully initiate and complete the task that the teacher is assigning. The tendency then is for the teacher to provide that scaffolding to the entire class. As an example, I will see the teacher doing two or three practice problems on the board, reviewing the work from yesterday before we get started on the content today knowing that there are some students who need that, but also knowing there’s a group of students who could progress on with the new task without that scaffolding.
By providing that scaffolding, the teacher is actually preventing the students from practicing a set of learning behaviors leading to independence and learning how to learn on their own. It might be much better for the teacher to start the lesson without the scaffolding and then begin to provide it as the need emerged, or to allow the students to self assess and offer the scaffolding for students who felt necessary while offering the opportunity to jump into the new task to other students.
A teacher’s work with scaffolding might look more like a dance, or in effect an improv. The teacher starts students on a task and then watching the student, the teacher makes the decision to provide some support. As the teacher provides that support, she watches the student work with that support and the teacher decides when to draw back.
Dan Meyer in a blog that he wrote that described it as the teacher thinking about the fact that you can always add more scaffolding, but you can’t subtract. In other words, once you’ve provided the scaffolding to to the student, it’s a done deal. You can draw back from it, but you can’t now experience what would have happened had you not given the scaffolding.
As I read that it really caused me to to wonder about as a teacher I’m probably best to err on the side of too little scaffolding because I can make that decision to come back and add more support, rather than over scaffolding, which may be getting the students to a successful outcome quicker, but denying the student the opportunity to learn through the struggle process. Differentiation can also then be considered as the teacher is looking at scaffolding a lesson.
Imagine a classroom where the teacher is giving a writing prompt to the students that might look something like this, the teacher announces the prompt and then identifies a group of students to go off and get started on writing the prompt. With the remaining students, the teacher may explore some questions that one might consider before starting to write in response to the prompt. Having done that activity, that she may dismiss another group of students to get started. With a smaller remaining group of students, the teacher might create a chart of some keywords that students would perceive as being words you would use in this particular writing prompt. Now, most of the students are ready to begin their work and perhaps a final student or two, the teacher assists them in writing their opening sentence.
Again, the critical element here would be observing that a student was pushed into a more advanced beginning than they could handle and being able to pull the student back into the scaffolding, but in effect the teacher is constantly engaged in observing the impact of the support she’s providing and making a judgment about what to do next. When working as a coach and providing teachers with both preconferencing conversations and post-conferencing follow-up, I suggest raising the scaffolding issue. In a preconference asking, where are you seeing scaffolding fit in? How are you deciding which students need the scaffolding versus which students do you think can progress without the scaffolding?
In a post-conference, you might raise a similar question about the amount of support that a teacher build into the start of a task, and what the teacher believes might have happened had she started the task with less scaffolding support or perhaps started the task with without the scaffolding support. Those are the spots where I like to bring in the worst case scenario. A question to the teacher in other words, what’s the worst thing that would have happened had you started the lesson with less explanation, less examples, less modelling? What would be the pluses and minuses of taking that risk? I frequently find when teachers think that through, the risk is not that great because you can always go back and add necessary scaffolding.
The same thoughts about scaffolding support I think are critical for coaches and school leaders to consider in how they work with teachers. As you look at professional development activities, professional learning opportunities, your work with professional learning communities, are there times that because some teachers need more support, we end up scaffolding the activity for the whole staff? Or we scaffold with forms and protocols for a PLC that is perhaps ready to risk and go forth with more independent learning direction on their own.
I’ll wrap this up with a quote from George Couros that I thought powerfully allows us to look at how we scaffold with students as well as with staff. A quote, “We need to find a balance of having high expectations of our people to get their work done with excellence while also ensuring that if they need help, they know they can come to you for support. Weakness is not shown when asking for help, but it is often when you don’t ask for help is when you need it most. Make sure that the people you serve know that you are there to help them when they need it most, as their success is your success”.
I do believe that as we create opportunities for students to request the help that they need, and for students to learn the value of attempting independent learning and seeking assistance and being able to discover when am I at that point that I need the assistance? That’s the real empowering of our learners. As you explore this in some of your coaching activities, I would love to hear your thoughts from the responses you get from teachers, and maybe I’ve raised the consciousness with this conversation for your observation in teacher’s classrooms as well. Thanks for listening.
Thanks for listening folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com
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