Scaffolding Towards Mastery


One of the many strategies employed by teachers across all grade levels and divisions is that of scaffolding. Instructional scaffolding is the process through which a teacher helps their students make progress towards, and eventually achieve, mastery level work or understanding. This is done through a systematic skill building approach, where new skills and experiences build on those previously taught, until the student is able to demonstrate through their work that they have mastered the concept. 

Demonstrating Mastery

It’s the final part of the process, the ability for students to demonstrate mastery, that is often at the forefront of educational discussions. Traditionally, the method of determining ‘mastery’ is done through a test, or final exam. However, recent research is finding that testing, and the rote memorization required for success on tests, does not have the long term ‘mastery’ impact that should be the goal of all educators/schools. 

The Perils of Not Scaffolding

For example, a few years ago Lawrenceville School in New Jersey decided to test the ability for their Junior level AP Bio students to retain information they learned in their year long class over summer vacation. Students sat for the standard AP Bio exam in June, and then the school gave them a simplified version of the same test when they returned to school in the fall. The results of the experiment are best summed up by the following quote from a November, 2015 Washington Post Op-Ed written by Ted Dintersmith (emphasis mine); 

“The average grade in June was a B (87 percent). When the simplified test was taken in September, the average grade plummeted to an F (58 percent). Not one student retained mastery of all key concepts they appear to have learned in June. The obvious question: if what was “learned” vanishes so quickly, was anything learned in the first place?”

The simple answer to that questions If we are going to help students gain mastery over skills and concepts that will stick with them, then a deeper, more meaningful approach to learning is needed. It’s one of the reasons that progressive education has stood the test of time, research shows that children ‘learn by doing’ and the important work of constructing knowledge requires a layering of skills. 

Effective Scaffolding

I had the opportunity to observe our eighth science class on Friday, and was able to witness what effective scaffolding towards mastery looks like. Without prompting, or direct instruction from myself or Shira (and of course without Emma present) all eighth graders entered the classroom and immediately began setting up various lab equipment, and donning the correct protective gear. In this current unit, they are tasked with taking a flask full of ‘sludge’ (a viscous mixture of liquid and solid compounds) and running the sludge through five or six different methods of separation in order to break the sludge down into its component parts. For the entire 80 minute period the groups collaborated effectively, problem solved and recorded results as they progressed through the lab, all without any need for guidance or instruction. When the class was complete, they cleaned up thoroughly and made plans for how they might finish their labs during the next class meeting. 

What I witnessed was an entire class of eighth graders who have mastery over the skills and knowledge needed to set up and execute various labs, and no longer need to be given direct instruction on how to do so. They will carry this skill set and knowledge with them as they move onto high school, and it will allow them to gain deeper knowledge of the sciences as they progress.

But, perhaps my favorite take away from witnessing this class period was seeing Emma’s impact in action. She may not be physically here at the moment, but her passion for student-centered teaching and learning certainly is! 

Keep Connecting,