24 October 2011


When I was in the classroom, I used the oft-maligned "If...Then...Because" hypothesis format with students. My purpose was not to require this format. There are any number of ways to construct a hypothesis. But I had a lot of kids who had trouble communicating their thoughts about a prediction. You could talk to them and they could explain their thinking. But to write a hypothesis for a given question? They were like deer in the headlights. So, I helped them incorporate this scaffold...this tool in their belt...so if they got stuck, they had a way out. To me, this is one of the purposes of using an instructional scaffold. It's a support for the student until they can stand on their own with a skill.

At a recent conference, I was in a discussion about the research process, and many of us in the room remembered using note cards, at the behest of our teachers. Although the notecards were meant to be a scaffold---a way to help us develop the ability to "chunk" information and track sources---but many of us also remembered being either required to use the strategy and/or graded on whether we used it. In fact, I'd wager that most of us have worked with teachers who misuse scaffolds in this way: they take what should be a flexible skill (like notetaking) and ossify a scaffold around it (index cards only). Scaffoldificiation has now occurred.

This is not to take anything away from the notecard process. Index cards can be used in all kinds of awesome ways. Where I start to have a problem is when something like notecards is presented as THE way to do research or when any "musts" are attached. At that point, you are asking the student to conform to the tool instead of helping the student develop a skill. I totally get that as a teacher, you don't want 30 different styles to have to learn and provide feedback on. There has to be a balance between meeting student needs and not pulling out all of your hair. But can you introduce more than one way (even just two?) for kids so they can start to learn what works for them?

I think there are various things at work that lead to scaffoldication. Part of it may be the old chestnut of "We've always done it this way." This presumes that the best way was identified decades ago, prior to the invention of lots of other tools and methods. And, who knows? Perhaps the old way is still best. But there's no way to know unless others are given an opportunity. It may be that fear (or laziness) is another reason. We grow comfy in our ruts. Hey, it worked for some students...let's give it to all of them.

Do you need to have a conversation with a colleague about scaffoldification? Obviously, you can't start with "Scaffolds. Ur doin' it wrong." But can you help them identify what it is they really want students to take away from the process? Chances are, it's not really the "If...Then...Because," the physical cards, or that every essay must have five paragraphs. Beyond that, they should be able to see that these attributes don't belong as part of the scoring process or final grade. Help your colleagues remove their own crutches and scaffolds so they can focus on student ideas and learning.


Jenny said...

I love the word scaffoldification. That's brilliant.

The issue of teacher reflection is one I've been reflecting on a lot lately. I think that's a part of what you've hit on here. We do things because we've always done them or because they answer one problem we have. If we don't reflect more on our decisions and on what we see happening in our classrooms then we are likely to make some poor choices.

The Science Goddess said...

Or, perhaps they were the right choices for previous students/situations, and we forget to account for differences in the classroom that arise every year.

We just need to remember to be flexible---with our thinking and what we engender in our students.