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Scaffolding

What has scarf folding got to do with ELT? Photo by Darlene

It’s week 3 in the discussion about Dogme and the challenge that Karenne has put forth this week was this:

The teacher’s primary function, apart from promoting the kind of classroom dynamic conducive to a dialogic and emergent pedagogy is to optimize language learning affordances, by directing attention to features of the emergent language; learning can be mediated through talk, especially talk that is shaped and supported (i.e. scaffolded) by the teacher.

Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009.

In order to start my post in response to this challenge, I visited Thornbury’s blog post about scaffolding. This is one of the (many) things he states there:

scaffolded learning is not a one-off event, but is embedded in repeated, semi-ritualised, co-authored language-mediated activities, typical of many classroom routines such as games and the opening class chat.

Scott Thornbury, An A-Z of ELT

All right, then. We’ve got the starting point, but how exactly can we develop the idea of learning being scaffolded? To be honest, there are many other things I like from the passage that Karenne has chosen as a starting point to the discussion.

The Role of the Teacher

What exactly does it mean – being a teacher? Just as Cecília Coelho wrote in her response to the same challenge, the role of the teacher is not only to transmit knowledge anymore. This might once have been the role of the teacher, in times bygone, students relied on teachers to learn whatever it was that they needed to learn. Those days, teaching could still be seen as something completely different from learning. Teaching was linear, PPP made a lot of sense, and learners were asked to mainly simply listen to the teacher and remember what they were told. If we think about Bloom’s Taxonomy, we were stuck in the very first stage – REMEMBER. The other stages, such as understanding and application, for instance, were to be developed elsewhere. Once students were given the facts, they’d eventually be able to move forward on their own.

These days, it seems most educators have understood that education shouldn’t be teacher-centred. The idea of preparing students to become factory workers who obey everything they’re told doesn’t work anymore. Work, these days, value different characteristics and skills, such as collaboration, leadership, and creativity. It’s high time we changed to a student-centred approach to teaching. In language teaching, we’ve got to abandon PPP and start looking for different paradigms. I particularly enjoy Jaremy Harmer’s ESA for teaching, and Michael Lewis Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle for learning.

What is learning?

There are times I really wish I were able to have the right answer, but as this is not the case, I’ll venture a guess. We can only say we’ve learned how to do something when we can, well, do that something. Let’s take, for example, learning how to play a guitar as an example. The first thing that someone does when trying to learn how to play the guitar is observing someone else playing the guitar. Then it’s your turn to have a go at it. You get the guitar and you remember, from your observations, that guitar players have a certain way to hold the guitar, and so you try to imitate that. Perhaps you’re a very good observer, and you noticed that the guitarist’s fingers touch some of the strings and press them down in many different ways. You then realise it’s not as easy, but you decide to give it a try anyway, and suddenly the moment of truth: you don’t sound as well as that guy you’ve been watching. What then? You start the cycle all over again. You can observe it one more time, pay closer attention at certain details that might have gone unnoticed, come up with a theory of what you did wrong, and you try again.

Back to the Teacher

It’s now that the teacher can make a difference. It’s time for the teacher to help the learner understand what he or she might be doing wrong. The role of the teacher is showing what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s also motivating the learner so that interest is not lost to the point of giving up due to repetitive failure. The teacher has got to support the learner, explain things in a way that it’s easier for the the learner to see the mistakes he or she is making. And, yes, it’s also the teacher’s responsibility to instruct the learner bearing in mind the current level of the learner and adding to it the right amount that the learner can process (ZPD). You don’t really expect, as a teacher, that a novice guitar player will play a Stevie Ray Vaughan song, do you?

Scaffolding, then, is doing exactly that: making learners consciously (or not) aware of their successes and shortcomings. It’s showing them what they’re doing wrong, and showing them a way forward. Take, for example, Mike Harrison’s example. Drawing, showing pictures, writing on the board, mimics, providing learners with a specific text, getting them to work in pairs, getting them to listen to one another, pointing out mistakes AND correct examples of usage. I see all of these as scaffolding. You’re doing a lot more than just playing the role of the information bearer in the classroom. Scaffolding means making sure you provide the right support for language learning, bearing in mind your learners needs. Well, at least this is my understanding of scaffolding, and this is what I try to do in the classroom.

Other posts, perhaps a lot more straightforward in answering the question, in response to this challenge are:

  1. Mike Harrison
    October 25, 2010 at 6:17 am

    Hey Henrick,

    I like the analogy of learning to play a musical instrument – I really think that language learning is quite similar. LOL @ the idea of a beginner musician trying a Stevie Ray Vaughan number! But what an important point – motivation is such an vital component of any learning (and teaching).

    Nice post – I haven’t got anything really to add =)

    • October 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm

      Hi Mike,

      Many thanks for the comment! I really think motivation is key in life, too. :)

  2. October 26, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    I think you are right on with your definition of scaffolding. We can’t help students scaffold without an understanding of where they have made gains and where deficiencies still lie. Scaffolding is often seen as a group effort build upon the last skill taught but it really should be individual to each student. Each student is in their own place of scoffolding their learning.

    • October 27, 2010 at 10:30 pm

      That’s one of the things we should allow learners, but school these days still seem to think otherwise, isn’t that right? Students aren’t allowed to take their time to learn, they’ve got to learn whatever we want them to learn in the way teachers think best. We’ve got to make sure we see both the successes and the failures if we are to take them to the next level. Hopefully we’ll get there soon.

  3. October 27, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I very much enjoyed your tying in the learning to play a guitar comparison as I often tell my students that English isn’t math but music. You’re absolutely right and sometimes I think this is where the “silent” period steps in, while they are watching and listening to us to speaking English but like any good music teacher we have to hand over the keys/strings as soon as possible so they can have a go and… like good parents, put up with all the clanging, bangin and wrong notes until we encourage them into Chopin!

    K

    • October 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm

      Hi K,

      Oh, the silent moments!! Silence is golden, huh?! :)

      If only teachers could see that those ‘awkward’ moments of silence in the classroom aren’t always awkward…

      H

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