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I am Not Just a Guide, and I'm Never on the Side.

The teacher's role in a personalized learning environment is a dynamic one.  The mantra that the teacher should be the guide on the side is a fallacy and simplification that we must fight against!

Here's a snapshot of a teacher in a truly personalized learning environment.






In our current unit, my students could be working on many different assignments. They could be working on one of three different content acquisition labs, one of four different practice problem sets, or the overarching group project. So, the different students in my class could be working on one of eight different instructional pieces. This creates a unique situation for the teacher because in each interaction the teacher has to be ready to differentiate the instructional pieces in a way that meets the needs of the student.

For years, I've heard the adage that a teacher needs to move from the sage on the stage the the guide on the side. I understand the sentiment and it's a cute turn of phrase, but it is dead wrong for the personalized classroom.  According to the Gold Standard of PBL, John R. Mergendoller has identified 6 key practices for the teacher: Design, Align, Manage, Scaffold, Assess, and Coach. In this post, I just want to focus on the role of teacher in scaffolding because it is something that needs to be done for all students in all phases of the classroom.

Traditionally, I think math and science teachers are most comfortable and most familiar with scaffolding when it comes to students working on problem sets.  Students in my PBL units still have problem sets to complete.  The difference is I do not give them all of the instruction for how to complete the problem sets up front.  I give them a base and let them go from there.  What this means is that when students are working problem sets individually or in small study groups, the scaffolds required will be personalized.  These is something every teacher does when they speak to a student who is having an issue, but we need to identify them as scaffolds and we provide them for most students not just students with learning disabilities.  We help by underlining and identifying variables, drawing a picture to create a visual representation for the student, or identifying the formula to be used.   Depending on the student me may guide them to complete these steps for themselves or take the lead in modeling the process.  For students that don't need these scaffolds, we may push them beyond to inquire how they got an answer to a complex problem and ask them to explain the process.  We may even ask this student who is already proficient to help scaffold for others students who are struggling.

Since this is a science class we complete quite a few labs.  Scaffolding is essential in the laboratory to ensure that the apparatus is not getting in the way of students understanding the underlying purpose of the lab.  In scaffolding a lab, there are 4 different levels of support a teacher can provide to different groups.  The lowest level of support is providing students with only a general concept of what to investigate and let them decide on the problem to be researched, design their own procedure, and conduct the experiment.  The second level provides the students with the problem to be investigated and letting the students design the procedure and carry out the lab.  The 3rd level of support gives students the problem and procedure and allows them to carry out the experiment. The last level has the most support.  It is the most restrictive so it should only be implemented in extreme situations.  The teacher provides all instruction through the procedure and assists in the collection of data. Once any group at any level has collected data, it is the teacher's job to float from group to group as students analyze the data.  Some groups will need basic assistance in how to interpret the data, but other groups should be driven to find deeper meanings in their data through questioning that only the teacher could provide. 

When it comes to a major project, scaffolding becomes less prescribed but more essential to the process of learning.  It is very tempting for a teacher to jump in to help a group too early with assistance.  A great teacher can observe when a group is frustrated or inactive because they have hit a barrier.  These barriers can occur at any point in the PBL process.  At the start of a project, the teacher may need to help a group understand and focus on the driving question by breaking down the prompt or giving students examples.  Once groups have focused on how what their project will be, many groups will need help with figuring out a list of tasks that need to be done and how these tasks will be delegated.  Once students are deep in the process, the teacher is making the rounds providing daily feedback and providing problem solving strategies at the group level.

During project time, there are always enough questions to keep me busy helping groups problem solve. There are always issues with technology to address.  When a group run into the an issue with understanding, I give an impromptu lesson to a that group.  When this issue crops up among multiple groups, its a perfect time for a class lesson.  At this point, the students will have a reason to learn the information.   Although the project based classroom is unlike other classrooms, there are still problem behaviors a teacher needs to address.

The 6 teacher practices design, align, manage, scaffold, assess, and coach, are done completed every day in class.  My goal in the post was to get us away from the idea that in a personalized learning classroom, the teacher is a passive agent.  The teacher needs to be actively engaged in order to help every student and every group in the classroom.  





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