Gold Standard PBL: Scaffold Student Learning


The term “scaffolding” has been used in U.S. education for a while now, and its meaning has gotten a little fuzzy. When originally coined by Jerome Bruner in the 1960s, it meant “a process in which teachers model or demonstrate the problem-solving process, then step back and offer support as needed.” Now, it’s often used more generally to mean “support provided to students to help them learn or do something” – which could include lessons, modeling, coaching, workshops, tools, or any other resources they might need. It’s often linked with differentiated instruction, emphasizing the importance of employing the appropriate scaffold to meet individual student needs.

In our model for Gold Standard PBL, we use the more general sense of the word when explaining one of the Project Based Teaching Practices  but we also like the original definition’s “then step back” part. In PBL, after all, we want to encourage students to work independently from the teacher, to have voice and choice and a sense of ownership of the project and their learning. I talked about scaffolding in PBL on a Hangout with three of BIE’s National Faculty members, Dori Berg, Jorge Valenzuela, and Georgette Baltierrez-Manohorathat.

We agreed that the teacher’s role in providing scaffolding in PBL is not all that different, fundamentally, from what it is in traditional teaching; it’s about meeting the learning needs of all your students so they can be successful. However, in PBL students might need scaffolding for non-traditional skills such as conducting inquiry or working with real-world experts, or for 21st century success skills such as problem-solving, collaboration in teams, or making presentations. Dori pointed out another difference; in PBL, the teacher typically plans scaffolding for the whole project in advance, to “make sure there’s alignment from start to finish.” While PBL teachers can anticipate much of what students will need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in a project, plans must remain flexible enough to respond to student needs as they emerge -- and to leave room for student voice and choice, which can take a project in new directions. 

To plan the appropriate scaffolding for students, Dori has the teachers she coaches “break down the (targeted) standards and foreshadow where students might have some hiccups” in the project. Georgette, who teaches middle school special education, said she starts by looking at the prerequisite skills her students will need, including any elementary-level standards she might need to re-teach. Jorge made a recommendation along similar lines: connect scaffolding to students’ background knowledge and check for vertical alignment with the knowledge students have gained in a lower grade. For example, for a project involving an engineering design challenge like building a catapult, a teacher might expect (and would need to check) that students in previous years have learned some concepts about simple machines, such as knowing what a lever, pulley, or screw is, but need a deeper understanding of the mechanism of compound machines – as Jorge said, it’s now “identify vs. analyze vs. apply.”

We discussed a useful tool for teachers to plan scaffolding for a project: BIE’s Project Design: Student Learning Guide. This form captures a process for backward planning, from the major products in a project to the knowledge and skills students will need to create them, to the checkpoints for formative assessment, to the instructional strategies and resources that will give all students the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful. Our National Faculty members have facilitated teachers’ use of this form in BIE’s PBL 101 workshop – and our hangout guests agreed that teachers should have “several scaffolds in their toolbox” to complete the column for instructional strategies and resources.

To give a couple more examples of scaffolding in projects, Georgette described a middle school math project that involved building scale models for homes and planning a budget to furnish it. In addition to the required math skills, her special needs students were provided with scaffolds for social skills like communicating effectively with team members.

Dori told about a 9th grade English/Social Studies project, in which students analyzed the birth and death rates of various Asian nations and their implications for health care. Their final product was a video about the issue, shown at a school/community film festival. One of the ways the two teachers provided scaffolding was to create various stations in the classroom where students could choose what to work on. One of the stations – which they were sometimes coached to attend – was a teacher-led review of the concept of “population pyramids” which had proved challenging for some students. The teachers also conducted workshops almost every day, based on needs identified by students’ exit slips from the previous day. For the students who needed more content knowledge or indicated they didn't understand a concept or task, the teachers asked them to gather for a five-minute lesson to get them up to speed before rejoining their teams on a project workday. The teachers' long-term goal is to get students to take ownership and be self-directed in meeting their own needs for scaffolding, but Dori noted with a chuckle, “we’re still working on that.”

To wrap up our conversation, I asked about common pitfalls teachers might run into when it comes to scaffolding in PBL. “Not knowing their students,” said Jorge.  “Build in time for pre-assessing what they know and don’t know” then make sure to use formative assessment during the project to see if students are progressing. Dori backed up that point by offering wisdom gained from experience: “If a pop quiz reveals your lesson didn’t rock (as you thought it did), allow yourself to step back before moving forward.” Georgette had similar sage advice: “Everything is not going to go as planned, so be ready to adapt to meet the needs of students.”

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