Letting them be challenged without having them fall on their faces

There is a sweet spot in teaching between scaffolding and rescuing, between challenging and overwhelming, between chaos and a productive buzz in the room.  Finding the sweet spot is not always easy but when you do you are rewarded with student engagement, creativity and the feeling that you are a wonderful teacher with wonderful students.

Scaffolding vs rescuing.  We scaffold student learning by setting up the environment so that they will successful and engaged:

  • Create a provocation or reason for being interested
  • Engage students in an activity that activates their background knowledge; help them to recognize what they are already bringing to the task
  • Trust that they will be able to accomplish the task
  • Give help only to those students that appear to be struggling
  • Create open-ended tasks that have many entry points:  everyone can do something.

Challenging vs. overwhelming:   Students actually like to be challenged.  When I surveyed a whole school of students who were engaged in problem solving in math, what they told me was that they liked the harder questions the best.  I thought about that for a while and realized that I liked challenges, too.  I like playing Angry Birds better than doing laundry.  I like planning lessons better than marking quizzes.  I don’t, however, like challenges where I feel unsupported, get no feedback to know if I’m on the right track or really don’t have a starting point.

  • It’s not cheating if you help students who are struggling; it’s teaching
  • Be comfortable with the first 5 minutes or so being uncomfortable for the students
  • Challenges are easier when you can talk about it with someone
  • It’s not cheating if someone who is on the right track helps you out
  • If you only challenge them once in a while it is overwhelming; if they are challenged every day they develop confidence and perseverance
  • It’s nice to get a similar challenge the next day so that I feel that I’ve mastered it

Chaos vs a productive buzz.  Chaos is every teacher’s worst nightmare (remember the before- school-starts dreams?).  And, sometimes we choose controlled, tight environments over what we imagine will be chaos.  The most common comment I hear from teachers is that “my students couldn’t do that”.  I’m fairly certain, though, that if I were to show a video of a class of students engaged in that very activity, not one teacher would say “I couldn’t do that”.  You have to take a risk in your classroom when you let go of some of the control and let your students be challenged.

  • You are still in control—if it turns into chaos you can always stop the activity
  • You might be surprised that what you think is chaos (noisy) is really productive work
  • Some off task behaviour is going to happen (are you always on task when you work in a group or involved in a challenge?)
  • There is lots of off task behaviour when the kids are quietly doing seatwork, too—you are probably not aware of it
  • Trust your students; they are often far more capable than we give them credit for
  • Chaos can mean lots of things: Was it planned well enough? Did I consider my groupings? Was it a good problem/task?  Did I scaffold appropriately?
  • Productive challenges turn into chaos when it goes on too long—know when to stop and sometimes that is before everyone is completely finished

Teachers want their students to be successful.  We worry that if we don’t help them enough they will panic, shut down and feel disappointed.  And yet, we all love a challenge.  We love activities that make us think, that give us that “aha” moment, that provide us with a sense of accomplishment.  When teachers provide students with the “just right” amount of scaffolding, background knowledge and support students are willing and eager to approach the task.

Try something challenging in your classroom:  no one will die and everyone will learn something.  You can always change it up again tomorrow.

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