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8 Scaffolding Strategies: a ‘Q & A’ blog - By Russell Pearson (Dynamic Deputies)

A little while ago, we released a podcast episode called ‘8 Scaffolding Strategies’.

We’ve been delighted to hear of many schools using it for CPD purposes, and this included Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, who discussed the episode as part of their pedagogy group. During this session, their Head, Robin Macpherson, sent us over some questions that his colleagues had posed. Rather than attempt to respond on Twitter, I decided I’d write a blog. I’m hoping that this will be of interest to others who’ve listened to the podcast too. Here are their questions and my responses:

1. How do you use modelling for English writing whilst also encouraging creativity?

It’s reasonable to be concerned that teacher modelling may narrow pupils’ thinking, or perhaps make children over-reliant on their teacher’s ideas. I’ve got three thoughts about this:

Thought one: Creativity is a lot more to do with thieving others’ ideas than we’d like to admit

We all want our pupils to be creative and imaginative, but remember that great writers stand on the shoulders of giants. They pinch ideas from others constantly; breathing new life into them from their own perspectives. Good writers draw upon their own rich banks of knowledge/texts in order to write creatively, and it’s the same with the children we teach. They need to see/hear/read lots of effective writing before they’ll be able to produce their own.

Thought two: We can share more than one plausible effort

I think one way we can avoid children becoming too attached to our modelled write is to show them more than one plausible attempt. This helps to prevent children fixating on ‘one way’ of producing a great piece of writing (which less confident writers are prone to doing). For example, perhaps I’m modelling the start of a setting description. If I’ve modelled two effective (but contrasting) examples, then I relieve that pressure children might feel about their writing needing to look exactly like mine. If children see more than one good modelled write, then they’ll feel more confident to inject their own ideas/flair into their pieces, I think.

Thought three: Gradual release of responsibility

Remember that scaffolds shouldn’t be permanent, and modelling is no different. When delivering a writing sequence, I should gradually release the responsibility for leading the writing over to the children. This means that towards the end of a sequence they should be being ‘set free’ quite considerably, and this is where their creativity will now come into effect. The challenge for every teacher is getting the pace of that release just right… Too soon and they’ll flounder, too late and they’ll never feel brave enough to just go for it!

2. Which of the scaffolding strategies would you recommend for helping pupils to learn (and remember) definitions?

My gut reaction to this would be scaffolding through talk. I think that embedding and remembering definitions is all about the oral rehearsal of the key word, with lots of rich discussion of its meaning. I also think examples are really important during this talk. For example, if I want children to know what ‘amphibian’ means, it obviously helps if we’ve talked about various examples of amphibians that they now have a mental image of. Clearly this process can combine very effectively with an appropriate visual. For example, our Year 1 teacher starts every History lesson by presenting an icon that represents the subject History, and they talk about the definition of the word, with children repeating it back to her. This has helped them to form a clear understanding of it as a unique subject. Now, when they see the image/icon, they can immediately recall the definition of History.

3. What other examples can you give of pre-teaching beyond the ones mentioned in the podcast?

In the podcast I think we mentioned a couple of pre-teaching examples that were very quick and not dependent on much adult support. This included a ‘sneak peek’ of the teacher’s slides ahead of the lesson. In terms of other examples, I know of some schools that have formalised the pre-teach approach into a more focused (and longer) session with a Teaching Assistant ahead of the lesson. In one school I knew of, they had these pre-teach groups taking place during assembly times every day, and it had a real impact. It’s difficult to suggest many other ways pre-teaching can look, because we all have different approaches to timetabling and differing levels of adult support available. It’s about looking at your school day, and the resources available, and seeing what is going to work for you. I think the key thing is to see pre-teach as enabling all children to ‘hear the whistle’ when that lesson starts. There are some children who often feel like a race has begun, and nobody even informed them – pre-teaching combats this.

4. Is there a distinction between pre-teaching and pre-learning, i.e. is providing an independent learning resource that isn’t explicitly taught still pre-teaching?

Yes, I think this is a good distinction, and both approaches have can be powerful. Clearly pre-teaching is more explicit and should be led by an expert in the content. For this reason, I think it’s more useful than pre-learning. Pre-learning could be something like sending home a knowledge-organiser ahead of the unit and encouraging children to familiarise themselves with thekey facts. I think this is also useful, but the resources we use for this need to be really good if we expect children to engage with them independently. I’ve noticed some knowledge organisers that have the knowledge organisedreally badly!

5. We wondered about checking for understanding as a scaffold. Is it not something we would do even after scaffolding has been removed? Ditto for‘building on prior learning’.

This is a great question and really made me think. We definitely should always use check for understanding, but I do think – like modelling – we probably use it more frequently/explicitlyat the start of a sequence, or when introducing a new concept to children. We should use the gradual release model like we would with modelling, and expect the children to work with greater levels of independence as they gain more confidence, and acquire more knowledge. There will of course always be some learners for whom ‘check for understanding’ will remain very important even later in a learning sequence. As for building on/explicitly linking to prior learning, this is again something we should do throughout a unit, but I’d expect teachers to do it a lot more overtly when a new concept is being built. I think that when a new schema is being developed, there’s a certain fragility to it… It’s really vulnerable to misconceptions, or incorrect links being made, because children simply don’t have much in their heads yet!

6. Could you share some pictures of structure strips that you’ve used and worked well?

I am defaulting here to one of my Y4 teachers who really uses structure strips well. They look really different depending on the stage of the learning journey, but here are a few examples. One is for planning some writing about Shackleton’s journey. One is for a piece of writing about The Firework Maker’s Daughter, and another is for writing about the stages of mummification!

This teacher has the children so well-trained in using these, that she often gives them a partially-completed version as the unit progresses, for children to use when they plan. By the end of the unit, she can give them a completely blank strip for them to use when planning their own writing. It’s a great scaffold because of how you can simply reduce the amount you put on them over time.

7. Where do you stand on classroom displays now? It’s a hot topic – what would you advise for teachers thinking about their next display?

Of all the things we have to think about as busy teachers/leaders, classroom displays is pretty low on my list. I love a nice display, and I think they can be quite useful, but I think there are so many other things that make more of an impact on student learning. That being said, I am happy to reflect on three purposes I think they can have which are useful/impactful:

1: Celebrating high standards

I like a nice corridor display that shows off children’s polished work – perhaps an end of unit outcome. I think this can be a great reminder of the standards we expect, and it can make children feel valued. We just need to be reasonable about how often we expect these to change I think.

2: Working walls

I think these can work as another useful scaffold for children. It’s truly amazing to observe a class who are in the habit of using their working walls well to support them with their learning. This needn’t be fancy – I love a washing line with flipchart sheets pinned up, showing useful reminders from the unit. In English this might be some vocabulary, or sentence-level work. In Maths this could be modelled calculation strategies, or stem sentences.

3: Curriculum links

I am yet to do this in my school, but I love Andrew Percival’s school’s ‘map displays’. Teachers have a world map upin their classrooms, and during the year, they make links from across the curriculum on these displays, meaning that children can see how their learning connects to different parts of the world, and different subjects over time. This seems like a powerful learning tool that is also not ridiculously demanding of teachers’ time.

That’s all my answers. I want to thank the staff at Robert Gordon’s Collegefor some great questions. I hope this blog was useful for them, and for anyone else who had a read too.

The Dynamic Deputies’ new book discusses scaffolding as part of a chapter on differentiation. You can find the book here.

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