Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Assisting, Demonstrating, Scaffolding

Yesterday Smiley had some friends over for some "Art Exploration Time".  I'll use the event as an example of three types of teaching.


Smiley had not seen a hole punch in many months and probably did not remember ever using one.  He wanted to make holes in a paper plate.  Since his hands were not strong enough to use the punch, he got some continued assistance.  (The photo is not very clear about this, but you can just see Smiley behind his friend Stern, with Stern's mom helping use the hole punch.)

We also made gingerbread cookies.   Smiley is a good helper in the kitchen but needs continued assistance.  If I measure out ingredients he can dump them in the mixing bowls.  He can stir the mixing bowls without spilling, but does not stir adequately for most recipes.

Smiley likes being a helper.  He does not shy from activities that require continued assistance.  He can still feel more capable and knowledgable despite requiring constant help.

The same can be true for adults, too.  Many activities for adults, from scuba tours to kitchen canning classes, offer participants as much continued assistance as they desire.


In that same photo you can notice Smiley's stamp set.  A multi-colored stamp pad was something new for his friends.  So I demonstrated how to use a damp cloth on a plate to clean the stamps before switching colors.  Even three-year-old Stern caught on immediately and needed no continuing help.

Stern's sister, Giddy, wanted to help roll the dough flat between the silpat baking sheet and the plastic wrap.  But she immediately realized the new challenge: unlike rolling clay on a table, this task involved boundary conditions since the dough should more-or-less fill the silpat.  "What do I do?" she asked.  I demonstrated starting from the middle and moving dough towards an edge that still needed more dough.  She caught on and needed no other help.

In my math classes at LCC I do too much demonstrating.  A constant issue is how to better use class time for assisting students that are struggling more, and how to design activities that use scaffolding for students that do not require as many demonstrations.


A fun part of silpat gingerbread cookies is looking at the pieces between the cookie-cutter shapes and wondering what they look like.  I thought this piece looked like a wild boar, but Giddy decided it was a lion.

After making the mane with orange glaze she paused, unsure what to do.  "I have a hard time seeing the tail with that shape," I commented.  "Could you help me see the tail?"  She did: it is starting at the back, curving across the lion's yellow side, and ending in the red tuft of hairs.

My small and vague suggestion was just enough to get her going again.  This kind of small nudge is called scaffolding, after Vygotsky's theories.  A good teacher notices when a student is almost capable of more but needs a tiny nudge.

Smiley needed a more physical type of scaffolding when he tried to thread some colored yarn through the holes he punched around his paper plate.  Although he is practiced at making bead necklaces using wire or using dental floss and a blunt needle, he could not get the soft yarn through the holes.  So I made a stiff "needle" of tape on one end, which allowed him to proceed.

By doing as much scaffolding as possible we show our kids that they can be independent learners, but also that all learners sometimes get stuck and need small nudges to continue.

UPDATE: Smiley's friends names have been changed to "blog names".

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