Sunday, 22 March 2015

Enabling constraints by scaffolding

I have come to really love the phrase 'enabling constraints'. It ties together so much of what I value in teaching: the ability to empower students with choice and freedoms by setting clear guidelines and high expectations. It also hints at the approach of 'warm and demanding' which we all aim to embody at HPSS.

For me, it also reminds me of Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, which talks of bringing together the creative and disciplined mind:

                               "You can't think outside the box unless you have a box"

I have been reflecting lately that since coming to HPSS, I have become much more adept at scaffolding tasks for students (prompted by many of the other teachers I work with, but particularly Lisa and Cindy) - and have noticed just how much this has helped the students I work with to have a clear grasp of exactly what I expect from them.

In the past, I had just assumed that my students had somehow picked up the ability to write paragraphs and essays (by osmosis? from the English dept? probably not from physics?! - yes, I jest!)... but I never really took it upon myself to teach them how to communicate science ideas in a way that scientists most appreciate (and let's face it - NCEA markers appreciate). The content took so much time to teach that there was barely any time to talk about the Nature of Science, and certainly no time to teach about communicating in science. The end result was that I often gave copious amounts of repetitive feedback, which boiled down to: more content, more explanations, less waffle, don't repeat yourself, give named examples, why? how? when? etc.

I am so grateful to have an opportunity now to take ownership of teaching skills first before content (or alongside content, really), so that students can actually do something useful with the content when they learn about it. I have been focusing with my Year 9 class on introducing PEE(L) paragraphs - point, explanation, example/evidence (link) - using hexagons with connecting words to help them:

With year 10's I have been extending their paragraphs into essays by using a compare and contrast HOT map, then multiple PEEL paragraphs that are individually scaffolded. The below example looked at similarities and differences between wind- and insect-pollinated flowers:

The resultant essays have really impressed me, in terms of their responses being concise, full of content with explanations given for every point made, named examples or evidence and no waffle(!) Given that they are written by year 10's at the start of the year, I have full confidence that our skills over content approach is working well - students soak up the content BECAUSE they have something to do with it, they are not learning facts for the sake of it. The key thing has been that our PEEL paragraph approach last year with the now year 10 students was aligned across the board - all learning areas used it, so students had the chance to consolidate, test and refine their practice. Our students are not 'pigeon-holing' their learning, but rather they see where cross-curricular tools can be applied, and they use them to good effect.

I realise that English in particular has always taught students how to write essays, and I wonder why more subjects/learning areas don't? (unless this is purely my experience - a possibility!)

(I am more than happy to share hexagons docs - I have a set of connecting words, plus a set of compare and contrast words; and the docs with scaffolding, should anyone be interested).