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Accountability: the teacher and the learner

March 6, 2014 8 comments

On my last post, I suggested that the best way to focus on students’ learning is by focusing on teaching. The rationale behind this is that we can’t control someone else’s actions or thoughts, but we can control our own. This means that if we pay attention to what we can actually do in order to make learning more effective, we’ll end up being a lot more helpful to our learners than by trying out many different techniques and methods just because they are (or have become) mainstream. We still can’t fully understand how we learn, what really happens in our brains apart from the synapses and all the wiring in the brain. We may come to the point in which data, not guesses (even educated ones), will be the driving force behind our actions. However, until then, we might be better off by thinking and reflecting on our teaching practices and on what happens in our classrooms, with our learners, than by trying out the next big thing. The first thing teachers should learn is that what they do matters. If teachers don’t believe this, they’re in the wrong place. But just how much does it really matter? How can we measure educational success? Neil Mercer says that,

The educational success students achieve is only partly under their own control, and only partly under the control of their teachers. This is where the sociocultural concept of ‘scaffolding’ … is useful. The essence of this concept, as developed by Bruner (1986), Wood (1988) and others, is that an effective teacher provides the kind of intellectual support which enables learners to make intellectual achievements they would never accomplish alone; and one way they do so is by using dialogue to guide and support the development of understanding. (Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language)

Scaffolding is what allows learners to grow. But each learner may need a different kind of scaffolding. Can you figure it out? | Photo on Flickr by Anthony Shemmans

Scaffolding is what allows learners to grow. But each learner may need a different kind of scaffolding. Can you figure it out? | Photo on Flickr by Anthony Shemmans

Apparently, the concept of conversation-driven lessons and scaffolding goes a long way. But who would have argued against that? It is not hard to think about our own learning experiences, the ones in which we had a good teacher by our side. This, by the way, is one of the topics that sparks teachers’ interest in training sessions – reflecting about their own learning experiences. When we think about our own learning experiences, when we have the benefit of hindsight, it’s a lot easier to see what has truly made a difference and what was only fun. How many  are able to think back of a funny teacher whose teaching didn’t really stick, or a funny teacher whose lessons are so ingrained that you find it hard to separate the person from the classes? It’s not humour that is the defining factor for successful or unsuccessful teachers. At the end of the day, what truly matters is how much effort and attention you’ve put into that lesson of yours, and how thoughtful you’d been when planning the lesson for those specific learners. What matters is how often you reflected on the activities that you tried out in classes and the effect these activities had on each one of those students sitting there in front of you – or next to you if you’re that lucky.

This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt as a teacher. Being a teacher means caring about the time and effort your students are putting in by being there in front of you. I may not be the sole responsible for their learning, but I can’t shun the responsibility of being partly responsible for their learning. When this thought dawns on new teachers, they stop asking questions such as, “but why would I do that when most students just don’t seem to care?” or “why don’t they learn it if I taught them?” We do what we do because we are aware of our role and we are to be held accountable for all the things we choose to do in a class. And if students don’t seem to learn what you’ve taught them, perhaps it’s time you started reflecting a bit more about what you could do to help them instead of asking questions you can’t possibly answer.

Being accountable for what we do also means coming to terms with our own shortcomings. This is the moment you start thinking about developing and becoming a better professional. Accountability can do many things for you – one of them is helping you decide what kind of a teacher you want to be. Are you the kind that looks for excuses elsewhere, or are you able to look into your own world and find out what’s wrong? Are you capable of teaching the same subject differently to better help each group of learners, or will you simply do things the way you’ve always done and blame students for their not learning as effectively? Being a teacher means being on the move. How far are you willing to go?

*Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language – in English Language Teaching in its Social Context

Scaffolding

October 24, 2010 17 comments

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:

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