Scaffolding student learning in an inquiry-based classroom

When we scaffold student learning we think about “gradual release of responsibility”, “guided learning”, “modelling” and “exemplars”.  All good things which need to be part of every teacher’s toolbox.  But,  in a workshop/inquiry learning environment, we don’t necessarily want to show kids examples of what it “should” look like before they have had time to muck about.  If we think of the mucking about time as being intense learning time, jumping in too quickly with the exemplar may cause students to stop their own exploration of the ideas and just follow the example.

As we continually deepen our understanding about how students learn, we start to question practices that we once thought were the “best”.  Stephen Katz, for those of you who like to quote the experts, says that we shouldn’t be looking for the “best” way of teaching but just the “next” way.  When we do that we are responsive to student need and reflective about our practice.  It is less about the “wrong”  way and more about a better way.

So, while it was “best” practice a few years ago to teach by showing the exemplar right away, I have recently observed some other ways of scaffolding student learning which allow the students to participate in discovering what needs to be learned.  Here are some examples I saw just this week (if I’d been in classrooms more I probably would have seen more!):

  • Students in science need to know how to write a procedure. Instead of giving students a perfect example of a procedure or telling them the components of a procedure, the teacher has them draw a small line diagram and write the procedure of how to replicate it.  They read their procedure to a partner while the partner tries to replicate the drawing.  Now that students have some experience with procedural writing, table groups share their experiences and come up with criteria for a good procedure.  This then becomes the anchor chart for the class.  All of the students in the class could participate.  All of the students now have a better understanding of what makes a good procedure.  All of the students helped to co-create the anchor chart.
  • Students in English need to write answers to three summative questions about their novels next week. The students are given the questions this week and can begin to talk about them in their literature circles.  The teacher reads a number of picture books with a similar theme.  Students work in groups to answer the summative questions with respect to the picture books.  Answers are shared and exemplars are created.  The teacher then shows teacher-created exemplars as well.  All students could access the picture book read aloud and had opportunities to explore what the questions meant.  All students were involved in creating the exemplars.  When the students get to the point of needing to write their own summative answers to their own novels, they will have had many opportunities to practice.
  • Students in writer’s workshop are having a mini-lesson about sentence variety. In a traditional lesson the teacher may have demonstrated a number of sentence types and urged students to write sentences of different types.  Or, the teacher may have introduced transition words and had students complete a worksheet.  In this class students had to write sentences with only 5 words each.  Students began to notice that their sentences were boring.  This led to more experimenting and the students were able to lead the discussion on how different sentence types added interest and variety to their writing.  The teacher has observed that their writing has improved.  All students were involved in the activity.  All students were involved in understanding how different sentences can be derived.
  • A math class did not do well on a certain math question. The teacher reviewed the question with the students the following day without handing back their quizzes.  If the teacher had handed back the quizzes, the students would have focussed on if they’d received a good mark.  Instead, they were now focussed on how to solve the problem, comparing their answer to the correct solution.  Next week the teacher plans to have the students do the problem again.  Instead of having the learning be a one-time thing, in this class the students are getting another chance to show their learning after having had some more instruction.

When we first thought about scaffolding student learning, we did a lot of showing and telling.  We are evolving now to having the students be involved in the discovery of the learning.  We are providing multiple opportunities for students to practice the skills in meaningful ways.  Students are involved in their learning.  The scaffolding is in the design of the lesson not in how the teacher “releases” the information.

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