Back to: Module: Helping with Instruction
Slide 1: Welcome to the third webinar in Helping with Instruction. The webinar talks about instructional scaffolding. I’m Aimee Howley, Professor Emerita at Ohio University. The webinar is produced by WordFarmers Associates for the Ohio Partnership for Excellence in Paraprofessional Preparation at the University of Dayton School of Education and Health Sciences Grant Center.
Slide 2: Scaffolding is part of teaching, and as a parapro, you’re part of the team that does teaching. But if scaffolding is part of teaching, then what part of teaching is it? Is it a small part? Is it almost everything? In truth, it’s more like almost everything. Even so many educators do not use the term and have not often heard it used in conversations about instruction.
Slide 3: You probably know what a scaffold is, however. It’s a series of raised platforms, one atop the other, to reach the heights where workers need to do something. Instructional scaffolding is like that, except that we have to ask “Who is the worker when it comes to learning?” It’s the student.
Slide 4: Maybe you think of the educators—you and the teacher—as the workers in school. It’s a good way of looking at things. Teaching is some of the hardest work there is, and you and your teacher are doing it. But teaching isn’t really the most important work of the school. The most important work is learning. Teaching exists to enable learning. But who’s doing most of the learning? It’s the student. Of course, in order to provide effective teaching, educators also need to be doing some learning.
Slide 5: So how do students learn? How does anyone learn? A good answer seems to be that they learn in all sorts of ways and all the time. Ideally, and even naturally, we learn pretty much on our own. That statement is an odd one to tell educators, who are used to the idea that they are responsible for students’ learning. No teaching, no learning! But it isn’t true.
Slide 6: For example, one of the most important things humans learn is how to speak their “native tongue.” We all do this with a little bit of help from families, but not with anything like formal instruction. We all pick up that native language—and it could be any language really, depending on exactly where we live: English, Dutch, Swahili, Urdu—by hanging out with our families and figuring out vocabulary and grammar all on our own. We are apparently born as independent learners.
Slide 7: In the best of all possible worlds, we’d remain independent learners. We’d learn everything by experience—just as we learned to talk. Apparently, though, this “best of all possible worlds” is less possible than we might hope! Part of the reason—perhaps the largest part—is that we are not surrounded at every moment by all the things we might need to know. Learning to talk—as infants—is clearly within the capacities of nearly everyone. But learning to read? For some reason, we have more problems with that. Even though we all know the language, a lot of us encounter difficulties reading and some of us never learn to read very well. This fact stumps the experts. Maybe it puzzles you, too.
Slide 8: Apparently reading is one of the many things that require help from an expert—that is, from someone who reads! Expert readers help non-readers learn to read! We can call this teaching. But we can be more specific. What reading helpers do is that they build scaffolds to help the non-readers build their own reading capacity. If you have had the chance to observe an older sibling teaching a younger one to read, you’ll see how this works in a setting that’s more natural than a school.
Slide 9: So the first thing to know about an instructional scaffold is that it is built by someone with expertise in the thing the student is trying to learn. Level of expertise, of course, is relative based on the skill of the student. An adequate reader can serve as an expert for a non-reader.
Slide 10: What sorts of things work as “scaffolds” for reading? As a matter of fact, you probably already know: bed-time stories, books lying around the house (or classroom), telling stories to a child, writing down stories a child tells (and practicing what’s written), singing songs (like the alphabet song, which nearly everyone teaches to small children). You can continue adding things to the list. It’s all scaffolding to a non-reader. Pretty soon, though, the non-reader disappears and in her place emerges a beginning reader. This is almost as simple as learning to talk…and as complex and astonishing!
Slide 11: These scaffolds to reading work with most children. They are applicable in general. But children who don’t learn to read even though they are provided with these general scaffolds probably need other, more specific scaffolds.
Slide 12: In fact, as children get older and learning tasks become more complicated, general scaffolds tend to work less well. Think about lecturing a large group of students, all sitting still doing nothing but listening. This is a general type of scaffolding. But does it work for all of the students in the group? Does it work for most of them? The answer is “no.” Definitely not. As a regular instructional diet, large-lecture formats work for only a few. Instead, many things and different sorts of things are needed in order to provide scaffolds for a whole classroom full of students. That’s because what is good for one student might not be so good for another one. The idea behind scaffolding is that you build it differently depending on what a student is like.
Slide 13: Whatever the difference in specific scaffolds, the foundation of all of them is expert help. Scaffolding is just not possible without the help of an expert. That’s because deep knowledge of a concept or a process is required in order to figure out how to help someone else learn that concept or process. Routine processes in our lives provide ready examples. Imagine trying to learn to drive from someone who is not a highly experienced driver. Imagine being lectured on driving in a group of 150 students! Real driving instruction typically happens one-on-one. When we teach driving, we acknowledge the need for experts, and we don’t pretend that one-on-one instruction is just too expensive.
Slide 14: Now, imagine all the things that a student might want to learn, or that a school thinks students need to learn: reading, multiplication facts, operating a crane, organic chemistry, small engine repair, surgery, flying an airplane, French, cabinetry, the history of the English Civil War, gardening, literary criticism, breeding chickens, theoretical physics.
Slide 15: That list might make you dizzy, but now try to imagine all the ways someone expert in any of those things might help someone else learn what he or she knows (and probably loves to do). It boggles the mind. Each expert probably can think of dozens, maybe even hundreds of ways to teach the same thing. Probably, though, assembling 150 students in a lecture hall to explain it all to them won’t feature prominently in the expert’s list.
Slide 16: So, experts know a lot and they can think of many things to do with novices to help them learn some of it.(A “novice” is a newbie—literally that’s what the word means!)
Slide 17: But what the expert chooses to use with a particular novice depends on the expert’s judgment of what the novice already knows. It might be absolutely nothing, or it might be a little bit. Maybe the novice is more of an intermediate student, though nowhere near the level of the expert. Or possibly the novice learned something wrong and first needs to get rid of some misunderstandings before being able to move forward to learn more. It’s subtle work, but it’s not rocket science. Many experts can make the necessary judgments just by talking with a student. (Of course, this sort of talk is very difficult in most classrooms of 25 or so students—and virtually impossible in larger groups.)
Slide 18: In the best of circumstances, the expert will understand clearly what the student knows, and exactly what the student needs to learn next, but doesn’t yet know. The education jargon for this level of student ignorance is “the zone of proximal development.” This term just refers to what the student doesn’t yet know but which is close enough (that is, proximal) to what the student can learn, given the student’s evident capacities, and with hard work. It will be difficult, but the student can learn it with the expert’s help. The expert is there to help with the difficulties. And the difficulties are exactly the things that typical instruction—without scaffolding—always overlooks!
Slide 19: So let’s review scaffolding. Thing one is an expert helper. Thing two is the fact that the expert understands the student’s zone of proximal development.
Slide 20: Now, here’s thing three: Scaffolding depends on a bag of tricks to help each student learn within his or her zone of proximal development.
Slide 21: And there’s a fourth thing! Both in the world of construction and the world of education, scaffolding is supposed to be temporary. What? What on earth can that mean?
Slide 22: Teaching itself, when you look at it from the standpoint of scaffolding, is a stop-gap measure. It exists to help students emerge as independent adult learners. What we’re looking for as educators is to put ourselves out of a job! It’s true.
Slide 23: But independent adult learners aren’t actually independent; they just operate with less and less help from experts. We call them “independent” because they are able to select and use on their own the scaffolds that are available to them. If you look up a technological process on the Internet—for instance, synching your computer calendar with your phone’s calendar—you’ll find lots of possible scaffolds. You’ll find websites that describe in words how to do the synching. You’ll find step-by-step photos. You’ll find You-Tube videos. These are all potential scaffolds, and independent adult learners will use one or more of them to learn the process. Of course, when the process is complicated, so-called “independent” adult learners do seek actual experts to show them what to do. Even though it doesn’t always happen this way, independent adult learners hope to acquire sufficient knowledge or skill so that they no longer need the scaffold.
Slide 24: Think too about driving: once we know how to drive, and pass the driving test, we’re on our own. No scaffold! It’s true, though, that some newly licensed novice drivers could indeed benefit from additional expert help. One-on-one driving instruction, like most instruction, isn’t a perfect way to assure learning. In fact, for the most part, the idea of all teaching is that it gets students to the point of learning mostly on their own. It’s scaffolding. Sooner or later we remove it. Our work is done. It doesn’t mean that the student stops learning. Far from it: we’ve gotten the student moving, and movement and growth continue without us.
Slide 25: So let’s look again at the four things about scaffolding:
- Experts scaffold the learning of novices.
- They do it by understanding students’ current capacities (that is, zone of proximal development).
- Experts bring to bear the particular experiences they think a particular student needs in order to learn more—what we’ve called the “bag of tricks.”
- When it works, the scaffolding is removed.
Slide 26: And then the cycle can start again. But guess what? As students progress, they begin more and more to see what they need all on their own! When that happens, they’ve ceased to be novices. Maybe they aren’t experts yet, but they’re on the way. If fortunate, they can build their own scaffolds.
Slide 27: In other units in this module, you’ll learn more about the specific approaches that experts have in their “bags of tricks.” For now, though, let’s recall the fundamental message underlying this unit: all students need and all students ought to have access to a variety of supports to help them progress from being novices to being more expert in whatever they are studying, whatever (in the best of all possible worlds) they want to learn.