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Are You Scaffolding Instruction? Or Proceduralizing It?

I’m often asked to help professional learning communities (PLC’s) develop common definitions of rigor. We start with a reading on what defines rigor and then rate sample tasks as high– or low–level. You can download the article “What Is Rigor?” as well as sample task cards at http://go.solution-tree.com/PLCbooks/Reproducibles_CACC.html.

That’s the easy part. Usually, disagreements about the rigor of the task come from how teachers envision implementing the task rather than the task itself. For example, one teacher might picture using a task early in the unit while another envisions it as a summative assessment. That changes how they view its rigor. Or, one teacher would create a worksheet to lead students through the task while another would leave it open–ended.

Eventually, these discussions lead to the insight that how we implement a task is at least as important as the task we choose in the first place. And, that there is a key difference between scaffolding to give all students access to a task and creating procedures so that students only have to follow steps to complete the task. Take procedures far enough, everyone soon agrees, and you can have kindergartners doing calculus. However, those proceduralized problems won’t be rigorous, no matter how difficult they were at the start.

Scaffolding is completely different from procedures. It might involve activating relevant prior knowledge, or reminding students of the different problem–solving tools they know, or asking a key question that expands the way a student is thinking about a problem, or even setting up a check–in point where you have a chance to check a student’s progress and perhaps redirect their thinking. This is just a sample of the techniques that leave the thinking in the students’ hands, which is very different from students’ expecting the teacher to tell them exactly what to do. One interesting insight from personality type is that teachers who prefer Sensing have a natural tendency to create too many procedures while teachers who prefer Intuition have a natural tendency to understructure, leading to confusion (If you’re unfamiliar with personality type,  download the free chapter “Who You Are Is How You Teach” from Differentiation Through Personality Types.) I prefer Intuition, and I love structuring tasks with teachers who prefer Sensing because we can balance each other.

Keeping tasks at a high level (scaffolding instead of creating procedures) is crucial. In Implementing Standards-Based Mathematics Instruction, Stein et. al. shared that in their studies, only about 40% of high–level tasks were implemented at the intended level. For the other 60%, less student learning took place than was intended.

Here’s the good news, though: Once teachers know about their preference for Sensing or Intuition, I find that they develop a heightened awareness of their tendency to overstructure or understructure. Awareness is half the battle. The second half is finding a colleague with whom you can collaborate. Can you think of someone who provides far more––or far less––structure than you do? That person might be your perfect partner.

Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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