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The Math of Scaffolding

Key Knowledge and Skill

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Effective Scaffolding

By: Riley Johnson- Originally posted at www.projectbasedliving.com with permission from Napa New Tech High School Principal Riley Johnson

Effective scaffolding within project-based learning can be a tricky animal. Many times, we struggle finding the happy spot between a student-centered free for all and the worst monotonous traditional approach.  The difficulty with scaffolding effectively is many times it takes more time, creating scaffolds that you end up not using, differentiating and personalizing scaffolds, and having coherent project planning.

In order to challenge our thoughts on scaffolding, we must step away from the task itself and think about the scaffold from a meta level. We can do this by thinking of scaffold design like a math problem:

Key Knowledge and Skill

Key Knowledge

This tends to be the area educators focus on the most and come easiest. Being able to articulate the key knowledge that comes from content standards is an essential part of the learning progression.  Educators are trained to be content experts, but unlocking key knowledge in scaffolding is a marriage between the art and science of teaching.  Questions to consider:

  • Have I identified what standards are essential, supporting, and tertiary?
  • What does key knowledge mastery look like in this scaffold?

Skill Development

Often times we hear people talk about how important 21st Century or “soft skills” are, but lack a framework for implementation or intentional skill development.  Having student “do” something isn’t enough.  When designing scaffolds, it is imperative that we articulate the specific skills (for example, instead of just having students talk, we focus on developing appropriate language and style) that we intend for students to master.  Questions to consider:

  • Do I have a specific subset of skills identified for each 21st Century skill students will utilize?
  • How will the develop of skills spiral from scaffold to scaffold? Project to project?

Learning Processes

We often define the learning processes we use as instructional practices. There are two simple approaches when identifying appropriate learning processes for scaffolds: the Goldilocks model or the 10,000 Hour model.  The Goldilocks model focuses on identifying the right learning process for appropriate time and place (i.e. one might be “too cold” or “too hot” for the desired outcomes of a scaffold).  The 10,000 Hour model focuses on identifying learning processes that students will deliberately practice over and over again.  There is no right answer for what model works better, but it is necessary to have clarity around the purpose for using specific learning processes.  Questions to consider:

  • Do I have a core set of learning processes that students will engage in over and over in scaffolds?
  • What learning processes have the highest yield when it comes to student learning?

Habits of Mind

Costa and Kallick identified 16 habits of mind in their 2000 book. When designing scaffolding activities, these habits of mind can be the thread that is woven throughout an experience.  For example, striving for accuracy might not be an explicit desired outcome of a scaffold.  However, there is intentional design in the experience to include the habit of mind to increase clarity of learning and quality of learning for students.  Questions to consider:

  • Will students experience all habits of mind in breadth or go in depth with a few throughout a project experience?
  • Is there correlation between the habits of mind in one scaffold to the next?

The Clue, Context

It is no secret that I value context as much, if not more than content. My beliefs fall on the spectrum that if their is not a place for authentic application and transfer of knowledge, then what purpose does the acquisition of that knowledge have? Having clarity around how a specific scaffold relates to the context of learning within a project experience can help educators ensure both the validity and appropriateness of that scaffold.

Pulling it all Together

It might seem like more work, but having intentionality in both individual scaffolding design and the progression of scaffolds throughout a project experience can be transformative for the student learning experience.  For example, when designing a scaffold for a project on World War II, it might look like:

Scaffolding Skills

By thinking about the math behind the scaffolding we use in project experiences, we can answer the simple questions, “does the task match the ask?” and “is it necessary for students to be successful in this project experience?”.

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