Process vs. Product

I recently posed the question of when does scaffolding become too much – too much of it, for students and for teachers.

“Instructional scaffolding is a learning process designed to promote a deeper level of learning. Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals (Sawyer, 2006).”

When I think of IS, I think of learning the scales before learning to play a whole song on a musical instrument. You have to learn the basics and the fundamentals that can be applied later on. As a child, I hated the rudimentary approach to the holistic learning. Why not learn the notes to the song and then just go ahead and learn to play the song? Did learning the scales help me play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” any better? I wanted the excitement of learning to play the cool pieces, not what I saw as the dull essentials that took the fun out of the big picture. Do the small goals really help to the big goals?

Now as a teacher, I try to empathize with my students when it comes to learning in the classroom. Here, though, replace scales with sentence structure and the whole song with some form of writing – essay, short story, narrative, expository, persuasion. Essays require formal writing skills (e.g. MLA, APA). Short stories require certain elements (i.e. plot). Narration, expository, and persuasive writing each have their own characteristics that make them what they are. And without learning the basics, you can’t write the intended piece. You can’t manipulate the basics until you have learned them. Think of Maria explaining to the children that the individual notes are “only the tools we use to build a song. Once you have these notes in your heads, you can sing a million different tunes by mixing them up.” This is perhaps an answer to the former question – the small goals of learning the notes helps you sing or play the bigger piece at hand. By learning and understanding the characteristics of Magical Realism allows you to write a Magical Realism tale – you can’t write one until you know the basics.

Now that I think I have resolved my question of do we or don’t we need the small goals, to which the answer is yes, we do, I’m still left to wonder when does how much become too much? Understand by Design – the backward design. We know what the goal is, but how much scaffolding (i.e. “performance assessments” in the UbD framework) is too much?

While the intention of the strategy is positive, too much of IS may create an overwhelming environment. Let me list some rhetorical questions that I’ve been grappling with.

  1. Does every piece of IS require grading and thus increase the amount of grades in the grade book?
  2. Does more IS = more grading for teachers
  3. Does more IS = emphasizes the minute picture rather the big goal for students

Let’s be honest – there is a great deal of emphasis on grades. High school. College. Transcripts. Jobs.  Can we and should we change the grading approach? That’s a color of a different horse and too much to take on for the intention of this reflection, but it does deserve recognition for future discussion. I digress. Should scaffolding be graded? Should the process be graded? Grades, yes, can reflect students’ process – think of quiz grades indicating a students’ ability to perform before the final exam. How do you measure mastery of the process? Should the grades be left to the final product with only feedback up until then?

I think that I’m in line with many in the field of education in believing that through Inquiry-Based Learning, Problem-Based Learning, and Project-Based Learning, students learn the life skills required for outside of the brick and mortar school systems – team work, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity. But even with that, those with the powers at hand like to see success, and see/define success through posted grades.

Scaffolding paves the way for feedback, for mastery, for an understanding of the fundamentals. But on what do we, or should we, place the emphasis and at the very least, what goes into the grade book – the process or the product?


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