It is no secret among teachers that we are a tired group. We are dedicated, passionate, sympathetic, creative, and smart, loving people. We work long hours – arriving well before we are scheduled and staying long after the clock says it’s time to go home. We work tirelessly to meet the needs of our students, to teach the standards, to prepare for the tests, to follow the law, and to meet deadlines, all while modeling how a good human behaves—no matter how tired that human might be. So why, one might ask, would any teacher want to add another item to their to-do list? Scaffolding assignments—long or short— will require more work for the teacher. It takes analyzing, planning, and the creating of documents to support the structure. Why would a teacher put additional time and effort into scaffolding their tried and true assignments?
Short answer: scaffolding makes everyone involved better.
Scaffolding in education is a teacher-directed process that breaks large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks, and uses frameworks or tools to complete them. How exactly the task is broken down is dependent upon the makeup of the class, the goals of the teacher, and the desired outcomes for the class. These outcomes can be based on the curriculum frameworks, the school or department learning goals, or very specific to the needs of the students in the class. Although the goal for each assignment may vary, repetition in process is important. Using a repetitive framework or tool, such as a graphic organizer, outline, self-editing checklist, or grading rubric, and building each task off the one before, allows for a smooth transition to increasingly challenging tasks while simultaneously increasing independence.
Although more frequent, smaller tasks provide greater potential for independence, there are more frequent checkpoints, due dates, or opportunities for revision with the teacher. This allows the teacher to see exactly where the student is having trouble; each step in the process lets the teacher see where the student went wrong. The teacher then has time to provide the additional support or clarity the student needs before misconceptions hinder the student’s progress as a whole.
Long-term assignments can be especially challenging for students with executive function disorder or executive function challenges. Executive functioning refers to the eight key skills necessary for successful completion of tasks: impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. Students who have ADHD, Dyslexia, mood disorders, neurological conditions or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often struggle with executive functioning. Scaffolding minimizes the effects of these challenges by providing ongoing feedback, support, and structure from start to finish.
Scaffolding assignments also allows teachers to identify students who need more significant interventions. Sometimes teachers will find that despite structured and less complex cognitive tasks, a student is still not able to be successful. This may be the result of a previously diagnosed disability or something that has gone unnoticed. These students may require differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is different from scaffolding in that the lessons will be modified for content (what the student needs to know), process (what the student needs to do in order to learn the content), product (how the student demonstrates what they have learned), or learning environment (the location where the learning takes place or how the classroom is set up). This may mean that a student requires an entirely separate text at a different reading level in order to access the curriculum.
Imagine a teacher, Mr. X, decides that by the end of the semester, his class will read Lord of the Flies and write a five-paragraph essay that discusses the significance of three symbols and how they change over the course of the novel. Great. That’s a solid assignment that requires comprehension, analysis, and critical thinking. Not to mention the reading, writing, composition, and organizational skills required to execute the assignment. Because of the varied levels of students in any classroom, writing this assignment on the blackboard, handing out a copy of the novel, and sending them on their way will yield, by semester’s end, dramatically different results from student to student. Not to mention, half of the class may enter into a state of panic or denial.
If this same teacher were to scaffold his assignment, his final project or goal, “Students will read Lord of the Flies, and write a five-paragraph essay that discusses the significance of three symbols and how they change over the course of the novel”, would be used as a starting point for planning. First, he would ask himself, “What do my students need to be able to do in order to meet the goal?” and, just as important, “What can they do now?”.
Bloom’s Taxonomy of the cognitive learning domain is an excellent resource for defining goals and objectives. By first identifying the skills necessary to achieve the stated goal, the teacher can then focus on how to develop those specific skills, working backwards to identify the base skills necessary to reach the goal. Direct instruction in these skills can be provided in the small tasks that lead to the culminating product.
||list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, record, name, underline|
||interpret, predict, associate, estimate, differentiate, discuss, recognize, review, locate, extend|
||apply, demonstrate, calculate, illustrate, solve, examine, modify, manipulate, discover, practice|
||connect, explain, classify, arrange, compare, select, relate, solve, categorize|
||design, formulate, arrange, assemble, construct, create, organize, rearrange, combine, integrate, compose, generalize|
||assess, rank, test, measure, recommend, judge, appraise, justify, summarize, support|
||create, invent, compose, predict, plan, construct, design, imagine, propose, devise, formulate, combine, hypothesize|
Once the teacher has defined the goal and the skills necessary to reach the goal, the teacher would create a set of tasks or assignments, each with a specific goal or focused on the learning of a new skill necessary to complete the task.