Because of the structure of today’s society and the transformations to our economic, social, and labor systems that have already started to change in the face of rapidly evolving technology, educating today’s learners is a challenge. Standardized education is losing its decades-long hold on the status quo. For years, we’ve pushed toward more and more standardized assessment in an attempt to ensure uniform quality and outcomes across educational settings ranging from elementary to graduate school.
Today, though, those trends are reversing, and what’s left in their place is a much more individualized system of instruction that requires creative teaching to reach every student. Let’s start by examining the new trends and then move into an exploration of what this means for teachers who need to scaffold their delivery in order to make sure learners all have a chance to engage deeply with the material.
The Move Away from Standardization
Many schools are moving away from standardized testing, both as a practice of measuring their own students and as a measuring tool for admission. Instead of depending on test results, many colleges are now focusing on learning outcomes, a broader term that allows for a more flexible and nuanced assessment.
The move away from standardization does not mean a move away from standards. In fact, many are embracing more flexible assessment strategies for just the opposite reason: more flexible assessment leads to better teaching.
As Chrystian Tejedor explains, “Theorists from John Dewey to Paulo Freire have warned that instrumental education ultimately creates adults who lack the critical consciousness necessary for a vibrant democracy – such as empathy, compassion, and commitment to participatory public values.”
Fewer standardized elements simultaneously give a teacher more room to teach meaningfully and make their job more challenging. After all, individualized differentiation is just a matter of slowing down delivery or making sure to give instructions in audio and visual format when the content is all standardized. Once you move to project-based learning, student-led activities, and other more complex learning strategies, differentiation becomes trickier.
Scaffolding as Solution
Scaffolding is the key to differentiating complex, meaningful assignments. The term is a metaphor and calls upon the imagery of literal scaffolds, temporary structures that assist workers in reaching parts of a building while it is being erected or repaired. The structures can be moved to reach different parts of the building and eventually removed completely.
That’s where the metaphor comes from. Teachers who can scaffold their assignments give everyone the same goal, but they give different levels of assistance and guidance based on students’ individual needs. Teachers learn to introduce or remove supports at just the right moment, constantly challenging students to improve their own skills without throwing them into a challenge that is too big for them to handle.
Successful scaffolding requires careful attention to individual students, compassion for their needs, and creative thinking on the part of the teacher. It’s hard work, but it is worth it. Scaffolded assignments lead to independent thinkers who are confident in their own abilities and who have a fuller, more robust understanding of the content.
What Does Scaffolding Look Like?
One place where scaffolding is particularly useful is in project-based learning. Project-based learning refers to instruction that asks students to create something instead of simply answering questions about the content. It is a very popular teaching strategy because it increases student engagement, is more enjoyable for both teacher and student, and leads to a deeper understanding of the material rather than the superficial understanding required by standardized testing.
Project-based learning requires the teacher to hand over a lot of control and let the students take it on themselves. In order to ensure that students don’t get lost in the shuffle, scaffolding strategies allow the teacher to step in when needed without taking away the autonomy and independence that makes the project work. In practice, scaffolding can look like this:
- Pairing students up into teams to discuss their progress, allowing them to learn from one another rather than just be given the instructions up front.
- Modeling by thinking aloud, especially in the early stages of the project to help students come up with their own topics and approaches.
- Handing out graphic organizers that encourage students to create organized timelines for completion of the project.
- Walking around the room while students are working and asking probing questions when a student seems stuck or unmotivated.
The move away from standardization and into more holistic types of learning is an excellent sign for our future. As standardized tasks are largely being automated through technological advancements, our learners will need to be ready for a future where their creativity, flexible thinking, and problem-solving skills are called upon every day.
To learn more about how your learners can build these kinds of skills at The Tenney School, contact us today.