How I saw the light and became a scaffolder

24th February 2006 at 00:00
When people ask politely what I do, I'm tempted to tell them I'm a scaffolder. I didn't used to be, I used to do teaching: I was trained to traverse the curriculum and be the ultimate authority; all the learning would come from me. Yet I was never really comfortable with that idea. How could I teach so many subjects well enough and why did I have to do all the work anyway?

Then I half-heartedly attended a course on assessment for learning. This revolutionised my thinking and practice forever. For the first time in 10 years I genuinely understood what being a teacher meant and it wasn't about teaching. If you're an assessment for learning professional you don't actually teach much.: children learn for themselves through the opportunities you provide. Your role is as a catalyst, a facilitator who helps scaffold thinking processes, an overseer of an industrious environment and a launch pad for learning.

Learning cannot be done for the learner. That's wheelbarrow teaching. You push them around everywhere and you wonder why at the end of the day you go home exhausted. I enjoy my new job as a scaffolder because I focus less on my teaching and more on learning.

The success of my lessons now depends on adopting a low profile and allowing children to maintain ownership of their learning. This is no easy task. I want to be the centre of attention. But I can't. This isn't about me. Formative assessment involves a culture change so that you are leading and teaching from the perimeter but being at the centre of things at all times, observing, coaxing and chivvying unobtrusively. It's about making the classroom a think-tank. My most important role now is to encourage discussion and to make the classroom as active as possible.

So what does it look like? Let's take a sample lesson. My starting point might be to use a concept cartoon, a visual argument that presents a collection of viewpoints about the maths involved in everyday life.

Children join in the debate. This immediately kick-starts the thinking and learning process because it makes their ideas visible. As children talk they compare and contrast their views with their peers'. They look for proof and justify their reasoning. They build on their own and each other's ideas. They try and reach a consensus.

I will listen to ideas, reflect and paraphrase what is being said and tune into any ambiguities. It is these areas of disagreement that help me set the learning agenda and help children to take the next steps. I can't plan what comes next in detail, and that can be unnerving, but I rely on a toolbox of strategies.

I might provide a little more background information, give materials for a practical investigation, or encourage children to review the evidence for and against, or identify questions and investigate them using secondary sources, or hold a vote to resolve uncertainties. I keep goals in mind but the children play a key role in shaping the activities.

As a scaffolder I try not to provide "answers" as I used to do but instead posit questions and lines of enquiry. I try to push children into searching for themselves and strive to make lessons thought-provoking experiences peppered with surprises and frustrations.

Recently, someone had the nerve to introduce me as a teacher. To the inevitable follow-up question "what do you teach?", I replied. "I don't. I facilitate children's learning." I asked what she did. Her reply? "I'm a scaffolder too."

John Dabell is a teacher trainer, writer and an Ofsted-trained inspector

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