Making the Invisible Visible: Scaffolds

I love watching the show, “So you think you can dance.” A show about “amateur” (emphasis on the air quotes) dancers who perform on a televised stage in the hopes of either winning or staying in the competition long enough to get noticed. When the contestants dance in their style of choice their movements appear effortless. Sometimes when a dancer flops on to their back or stands up without using their hands, the movements are so fluid, my thought is, “I could do that.” A moment later reality reasserts sanity. Like dancers, the movements by athletes in sports demonstrate amazing skills that inevitably leave spectators gasping. Some fans might think, “I could do that.”

Athleticism is hard work. It takes years of practice for skills to become second nature, embedded into muscle memory. One challenge that some of these great dancers, as with other athletes, is that they struggle as coaches. Their gifts of athleticism are so intuitive that they may not know how to breakdown the skill components for their students. What does it take to pirouette 15 times with perfect, fluid form? Or make 10 of 10 basketball free-throws? Or conduct solid research using only online resources for an argumentative essay/presentation?

A major chalhelpinghandslenge in classrooms for teachers is to breakdown content and skills so that students can do the work. Often times, such as with research or collaboration skills, students are expected to know how to use these skills. It seems so simple because “we” can do it easy enough.

A friend of mine shared a story about a research assignment that their child had to do for a Science project in elementary school. The teacher’s directions was to choose a topic from a list of options. Students were to research the topic based on content guidelines. The child, who had demonstrated academic ability by virtue of consistently earning high grades, struggled. The parents helped their child with the research while explaining what they were doing. The research got done, but the child might still be developing those skills. Now some would read this and say, “Well of course an elementary student should be coached through the process of researching. No one should expect anything different.” I have been in enough high school classes to see teens having the same struggles.

1. Design scaffolds during the lesson planning
Based on the lesson objectives, when designing the learning activities, it’s important to break down the skills or activities so that all students can make connections. Try picturing the students who you suspect will struggle and customize for them. The result will be useful to many of the students. For example coach students on using graphic organizers or mind maps to help them collect and organize data from research. Provide guidelines with examples for how to determine if a website is a valid source of information. Incorporate multimedia as a way for students to explore content and their understanding through different mediums, i.e. videos, podcasts, faqs, study groups. When coaching basketball free throws, I used a variety of activities for modeling, practicing, observing, and student self-monitoring. The same is needed in academia.

2. Always, always, always coach students to follow your support system

What gets monitored gets done.data_collection

I’ve built extensive support systems for my students to use. The scaffolds helped them develop the skills needed to be more effective. An open secret is that not all students will just go along with your thoughtfully laid out plans. At least not immediately. I and other educators who’ve devised effective support systems found it necessary to constantly monitor and coach students through the steps until they either completely bought into the process, or they followed the system because it was the only way they would be left alone. Students do not always get why they have to follow the carefully crafted support system just because you say it’s good. They’re not being difficult for a bad reason. Adults feel the same way when a supervisor puts in place a new policy. Unless it’s thoroughly explained and then followed through adult workers will most likely ignore it as unimportant. What gets monitored gets done. Students may do parts of the scaffolds, but also cut corners on steps that they may view as unnecessary or overly time consuming. Thus important elements are lost.

3. Plan opportunities for students to reflect on their learning

Support scaffolds are only effective if students learned what they needed as a result of following through. During the lesson, plan 2 to 3 reflection opportunities. These can be group conversations like a think-pair-share, or be done individually like a journal entry or an ungraded quiz. These are opportunities for formative assessment (feedback) that can be used to adjust the lesson as needed. Reflections report what students actually understand about the objectives at a point in time. Without this element, scaffolds and the lesson may be empty promises of learning because students will perform the tasks but get little or nothing from them–and the teacher will have no idea of the lost opportunities.

Lesson planning for a project or unit is a meticulous process. The planning is time consuming, and thoughtfully preparing the details of scaffolds can seem to some as teetering over to being excessive. In the long view, upfront planning of scaffolds is a huge time saver. Without thoughtfully planned scaffolds that anticipate learner needs, students who struggle either practice dancer1skills incorrectly or shut down. Once these problems are identified, much time is consumed getting students to unlearn bad habits or coxing them out of their frustration, rebuilding their confidence, and convincing them to try again. Competing on “So you think you can dance” is not in my future. Not with my lack of flexibility and creaking bones. But I could learn dances from different genres if I have a good teacher who understands how to break down the skills based on what I bring to the table. With practice and coaching I could possibly someday challenge for the Mirror Ball trophy on Dancing with the Stars. Well at the least, I can dream like anyone else. It’s the scaffolds that help make some dreams come true.

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