Scaffolding and Formative Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning

Occasionally I come across a teacher who expresses concern about moving toward the ideal of a highly evolved PBL type classroom where students are self-initiating much of their thinking and actions. As teachers many of us are more familiar with a teacher-directed environment either in our own professional experience or in our years as a student, so envisioning this shift can leave some teachers wondering what their role might be. Rest assured that even in the most student-centered classroom the teacher plays a vital role in facilitating learning. As Tim Kubik points out in the video below, a large part of this is the planning and lesson design process that sets up the great learning to take place as the unit unfolds.

As part of that process we need to be intentional about what it is that the teacher will do to foster learning and what the student will be doing to demonstrate that learning. This is important not only from the standpoint of logistics like setting up your unit calendar but also as a cycle of formative assessment. With the political emphasis on accountability and achievement schools and teachers often become so focused on summative assessments that they forget to include multiple opportunities to check student progress. It’s this formative assessment process that helps inform us about what the students understand and where they need further help.

Project Scaffolding Guide ex.

Using a planning form like the one to the right can help ensure you’re linking the process to the larger products students are creating as well as the skills and content you know they need to get there. For example if students were working to answer a question like, “How can we use the lives of present day minorities to tell the story of the success of the ’60′s Civil Rights Movement?” they might be creating a multimedia presentation or video. The skills and content they might need to do this would likely include (but not limited to) things like the sequence of events, how to create a video and the personal stories of present day minorities. Now that the content and skills have been identified it’s up to the teacher to provide that learning through a variety of opportunities and tools. With this intentional connection of scaffolding to content done we can then ask students to demonstrate they “got it” by building a timeline using an Edtech tool like Blendspace. At this point the importance of the teacher role once again surfaces as we now need to decide on the next steps to build capacity in those students who have not demonstrated understanding, restarting that formative feedback loop.

Great teaching is an art that includes a commitment to refinement and craftsmanship that we like to call “Artful Thinking“. This kind of commitment to work that seeks to provide a “wow” necessitates proper support and instruction from the teacher as well as the intentional and often fluid use of formative assessment to provide feedback and direction. If we’re expecting our students to demonstrate learning we must teach it and that means scaffolding the process, checking for progress and responding with additional instruction when necessary.

For more on formative assessment visit A Recipe for Student Persistence.

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