What does scaffolding look like for students who are experts and those who are beginners? And here we are talking about students in the same class. Let’s look at some of the issues involved.

If students are having a good time, it is easy to say that they are being taught well, by which we mean that they are learning. But it seems that students often prefer teaching methods that allow them to cover up their lack of learning. Thus, low-achieving students might enjoy group work and collaborative endeavors because they can hide behind their more competent peers. Conversely, high-performing students might like direct instruction and worked examples because it maximizes their effort / efficiency. This is seen in the seeming paradox that the most vociferous opponents to pedagogical change are the 4.0 students who have figured out and know how to work the education ‘system’.

So here are some observations that the literature demonstrates:

  1. In any class, there are different levels of student

This is a truism. We didn’t need the 21st century to figure that out. And teachers throughout the ages have attempted to adapt to each student. In the 21st century, however, we have paid homage to high level pedagogies that are sometimes too challenging for the students to learn from – and sometimes too high level for the capacity of the teacher! Here’s a not unusual example from teachthought.com:

The explicit assumption here as it is in so much of the popular literature is that projects, collaboration, higher order thinking skills, and complexity, is key to preparing our students for a complex world. But it ignores the truth that students are students, at least initially in every discipline and task, because they are amateurs and know very little. They do not become competent and even experts until learning has occurred. It is critical to understand that the typical ways in which we might address the needs of the beginner learner or the expert learner are not appropriate. Hence…..

  1. Pedagogy must suit the level of student

In the Expertise Reversal Effect (EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 38(1), 23–31 Copyright © 2003, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.), the researchers make this statement: “Instructional techniques that are highly effective within experienced learners can lose their effectiveness and even have negative consequences when used with more experienced learners.” The point they make is that when we create our instructional design, the aptitude of the learner has to be taken into consideration. As they put it:

“a large number of cognitive load theory (CLT) effects that can be used to recommend instructional designs are, in fact, only applicable to learners with very limited experience. With additional experience, specific experimental effects can first disappear and then reverse. As a consequence, the instructional design recommendations that flow from the experimental effects also reverse; for example, if Design A is superior to Design B using novices, with increased expertise, Design B can become superior. We call the reversal of cognitive load effects with expertise the expertise reversal effect.”

Thus, where learners already have significant schemas in place (long-term memory domain specific knowledge), pedagogy can move more to discovery and problem modes. “Automatic processing of schemas requires minimal working memory resources and allows problem solving to proceed with minimal effort.” Where learners do not have those schema in place, it is critical to understand the limitations of their short-term memory capacity (cognitive load theory) and thus the limitations of the students’ processing ability. “Working memory limitations profoundly influence the character of human information processing and, to a considerable extent, shape human cognitive architecture.”

  1. Pedagogy must be assessed not so much by how much students enjoy it but by how much they learn from it

As noted above, issues of ‘hiding’ and ‘efficiency’ can obscure the reality that enjoyment does not equal learning. This is not to say (obviously?) that enjoyment and learning are antithetical. It is to say that asking a student whether they are enjoying a class automatically means that the student is learning in that class. Anecdotally, students will often reference teachers who are strict, hard markers, demand high standards, as more their favorites because they learn so much rather than entertaining teachers who they like a lot but from whom they will admit they learn less or even little. Their favorite teachers as described in face to face interviews are those who enable them to learn a lot while providing welcome breaks, humor, and side trips that don’t distract negatively from the forward motion of the class.

Here are some excerpts from student interviews – middle school – that illustrate the point. The question prompt is who is your favorite teacher and why?

really good at helping you understand things but also made learning fun  engaged; he was really fun and he pushed us to learn more and he was really excited about teaching; we try to make it fun when memorizing Latin which is a  very boring subject and all but she makes it fun; when I have problems with certain questions she’s always there to help me and allows me to advocate for myself when something doesn’t make sense to me; she makes the class more interesting and helps us understand the book we read more; instead of telling us what to notice she let us discover patterns and different equations on their own

Paying attention to these three factors – level of student, pedagogy fit, and learning – will make an incredible difference in the success of every student in your class. The following is just one example of a way to make this real in your classroom:

  1. When the entire class is a novice i.e. have no automatic schemas in place, provide concrete teaching and direct instruction with the teacher firmly in control of the learning environment. Here, the teacher’s instruction acts as the schema for the student, schema that the student will now begin to develop for themselves as they move out of the novice phase.
  2. As schemas begin to develop and members of the class, hopefully the whole class, develop some automaticity and open up working memory for other tasks, introduce gaps into the required tasks that students now have to fill in (a process known as “fading”). This is also the point at which discussion becomes useful and even needed. As a teacher, the conversation is now more even with students able to take the lead.
  3. Expert students and, at some point, the whole class is now able and should operate under what we might think of as supported autonomy. Projects, group work, debates, controversial topics, extensions, all become possible at this level with an excellent likelihood that learning will take place in these ‘more enjoyable’ activities.