Big Picture vs. Small Steps: The Power of Scaffolding

    Several months ago I began to experience excruciating back and leg pain and, at the time, I was sure I had just overdone a workout; if I rested, it would be ok.  As it turned out, I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. I continue to see a chiropractor on a regular basis, who has truly been my salvation through all of this.  
    I can’t say there have been many times in my life when I was not able to muster a sliver of a positive outlook, but since March, there have been days I thought I would NEVER be pain-free again. It was intense and constant… unrelenting. I just wanted to give up and didn’t see how I would be able to continue carrying on with my regular life.  I felt utterly hopeless.
    In my role as a literacy coach, part of my work is as an interventionist.  I have seen hopelessness in the eyes of students who struggle, students who feel no reprieve.  As teachers, we often feel the need to paint the “big picture” for our students.  Don’t get me wrong, it is important for kids to have a sense of why they are learning certain things. Instruction without a sense of authenticity is shallow and does not encourage students’ real world connections.  However, if we constantly focus on the “big picture,” we may miss some crucial scaffolds along the way.  We may inadvertently undermine our instruction.
    After learning of my condition, several of my friends and colleagues asked what my doctor’s long-term plans were for me to be healthy and remain pain-free. Would I eventually need surgery?  What would the ‘end result‘ be?  I very politely told them that my chiropractor’s mantra to me through all of this has been, “Let’s work together to get this immediate situation under control so that your pain is managed. Then we’ll talk about long-term plans.”  My doctor knows that we must focus on the many little steps that need to build upon one another first before the big picture will even seem attainable.  For that, I am grateful.  When one is that overwhelmed, and the focus remains just on an end result, it’s easy to overlook and forget to monitor the little steps… the small points of progress that slowly give us back our hope.
    Oftentimes, I think it is in our urgency to have our students “arrive” at a particular benchmark, standard, or number on a rubric, that we might tend to place more distance between the “rungs” of our scaffold ladders, thinking it may get them there faster, yet if the distance becomes too great, they are unable to reach the next level of success.  
    One example of this is the guided practice component of a workshop framework.  This component of a gradual release of responsibility model cannot be overstated. Yet it is a component which is sometimes eliminated, for the sake of moving on to independent practice.  Likewise, we can’t simply think that by  providing merely one opportunity to practice the task modeled in the mini-lesson, that it will always be sufficient for the majority of learners.  Repeated over time, this will also reinforce our struggling learners’ belief that they will never attain the end goal, (the “big picture.”)  The time invested in guided practice will ultimately reap more independent gains.  
    Sibberson & Szymusiak in their text, Still learning to read: Teaching students in grades 3-6 (Stenhouse, 2003) state:    

“It is tempting to make a list of all the concepts and skills that our students need to learn and check them off as we teach them. But, these strategies are complex, and we expect our students to use them all their lives. We can’t expect children to be able to use these strategies independently, without support, after just a few lessons.  As teachers, we work to design whole-class, small-group, and individual experiences that model and scaffold our students’ learning and give them the time they need to develop independence” (p. 74).    

I’m getting better.  I was at the point of being pain-free for over three weeks before I decided that I would increase my level of independence and try a day of canoeing over Independence Day weekend.  (Ironic, I know!) Did I have a setback? You bet. I had completely forgotten how many back muscles (and the demands of controlling those muscles) are involved in that activity.  My chiropractor did what great teachers do: he reminded me that I needed more practice with the little steps, such as balancing, building my stamina, and utilizing the right tools in order to be successful.  I had taken away my own scaffolds too quickly because I was too focused on only my ultimate goal rather than what needed to be in place for it to be achieved. 

There’s a good reason it’s called the GRADUAL release of responsibility.  

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2 thoughts on “Big Picture vs. Small Steps: The Power of Scaffolding

  1. Jenn, I love it. This is what i try to get across to my “friends” every day. I remind them it took them time to learn to walk and talk with a lot of practice and reading is like that too. Thanks for the insight. Amy

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