Scaffolding your Lesson Plans - Lessons Learned from Traditional Teaching!

When you develop curriculum, do you consider the ramifications of your strategies on the entire course that you are developing? I was not very good at thinking long term in my first year of teaching (middle school social studies teacher). I looked at every unit and many of my lessons in isolation. I poured my heart and soul into too many lessons that had mild success but were regularly disconnected in some fashion. My disconnect was with the development of skills in a scaffold fashion without a congruence of activities and expectations that were yearlong.

I think we need to do a better job of thinking long term with technology as well. I see a lot of "Project" based technology use and not necessarily a scaffolding of learning to learn with technology. Let me put this discussion into context with how I began to evolve certain aspects of my classroom activities from the non-tech side of things. Here are five approaches to my class that I took to extend learning from unit to unit throughout the entire school year. I don't pretend to say that these are innovative by any stretch of the imagination, but the point is that I tried to extend my classroom activities throughout the school year.

1. Map: By the end of my course, I wanted my students to understand and witness the evolution of maps based upon human and environmental interaction. The students and I would build a map on the floor of my classroom with colored electrical tape (until I was moved into a classroom with carpet). The students would use an overhead map that was gridded off along with trying to use longitude and latitude lines. This map was built upon throughout the school year. I can still remember clearly all of the precious moments when I had students standing on different areas of the map as we had some kind of class discussion! The students were always amazed at what the map looked like after all of our additions throughout the school year.

2. Timeline: By the end of my course, I wanted my students to have a better reference of time and the impact of cause and effect. The students developed a "timeline" that was built upon the walls near the ceiling. The students would choose to add events that we talked about throughout the school year that they felt were the most important. The last few weeks we would incorporate some lessons that asked our students to evaluate the most important events and people added.

3. Gaming:By the end of my course, I wanted my students to utilize as much of my class time as possible and to enjoy social studies class. I tried to tie up orphan minutes with creative activities. I had students create "War Card" cards that were based on Historical Events. Every unit we created them so the students had a very sizable deck of events when they finished the course. The cards were produced with Microsoft Word and the students chose the picture that each card was associated with. The student's creativity here was amazing. The rules changed regularly. Sometimes, the oldest events were the most powerful and sometimes they were the weakest, etc. Sometimes, students chose particular events to be wild cards because of their relationship to the current unit of study. The students than had to incorporate these cards into their timeline voting and reflection writing as well.

4. Communications: By the end of my course, I wanted my students to understand the impact of changes through invention. At the beginning of many lessons and always at the beginning of every unit, I would have students introduce "information" to their classmates in some reflection of the current unit's technology. During the Revolution, selected students would share pamphlets. When we were closer to the Civil War, students would pretend to read from a telegraph machine with Morse code. World War I, students would send out secret notes to students with mock "homing pigeons", etc. Students really got into the act as they pretended to be living in this time period.

5. The Scientific Approach to Social Studies:By the end of my course, I wanted students to question and develop their own opinions. I tried to teach social studies with many of the techniques that science teacher’s use with their lesson planning. Students had a vocabulary guide that they built throughout the entire school year. Students were expected to use the scientific method when looking at primary documents. We had centers with experiments, models, interactive, etc. These activities were replicated throughout the school year so that we built upon the previous expectations. (Perhaps in another blog entry I will talk about how we had several Paper Fights as the rules changed from the Revolution where the students through with their off-hand through World War I where we turned all of our desks into trenches.)

The more I focused the entire course, the more I felt the students connected with the curriculum. How does this translate into improving technology use in our classrooms?

As I began to utilize technology in my classroom, the more it was apparent that I had to have a similar outlook with my non-tech experiences. Too often I would ask students to use technology by creating a project and then not revisit those skills in some fashion. I didn't scaffold the learning throughout the school year and develop their skills by building upon previous activities. Students created some amazing documents, videos and podcasts, but I noticed that this didn't always translate into long term learning with technology.

I see too many projects with technology that do not translate into stepping-stones for future projects and work. (Maybe this is just a reflection of my previous work.) Tech conferences are full of creative ideas with new programs and new websites. How many presentations are focused on building skills on a long-term basis? What approach do you take with scaffolding your technology learning? Do you have a system? Is there are formal system that we need to focus on? Do you use Understanding by Design?

Understanding by Design

The backwards design model centers on the idea that the design process should begin with identifying the desired results and then "work backwards" to develop instruction rather than the traditional approach which is to define what topics need to be covered. Their framework identifies three main stages:

  • Stage 1: Identify desired outcomes and results.
  • Stage 2: Determine what constitutes acceptable evidence of competency in the outcomes and results (assessment).
  • Stage 3: Plan instructional strategies and learning experiences that bring students to these competency levels.

The important lesson for me in all of this is that we need to look at technology and see that we need to scaffold the learning beyond "project creation". I have really tried to structure this with my work with professional development experiences and with my students. If I want teachers to use technology well in the learning process, I think they need to learn well with it themselves. The long term goal should be to have our teachers utilizing technology to learn on their own, when they need it most, where they need it most. Basically, the desired outcome for our teachers is "lifelong learning" skills.

When we sit down to build our curriculum, we need to think about where we want out students and teachers to be with technology by the end of the school year. Understanding by Design should not end with a single unit of study or project! Should it?