from the film, A Serious Man (2009)

from the film, A Serious Man (2009)

FYI: My post is in response to Jamie McKenzie’s article, Scaffolding For Success.

The quote posted above reminds me of the precarious relationship we have with our students. We expect them to learn … to follow the plot … to discover the undiscovered. But do we really light the way? Sometimes we show them the buffet table and say “choose”. But we don’t really say why.

I remember an anecdote a colleague shared with me not so long ago:  “One of my students asked me why we have to do this. And I told him–because it’s on the diploma exam!”

According to McKenzie (1999), we should tell our students why the topic (or activity) is important and urge them to care about the topic as well. In fact, we want them to see the big picture in bold, beautiful colours! The “why we are doing this” is not supposed to be a secret.

[Aside: And I am pretty sure the answer “it’s on the diploma exam” isn’t going to help students care about the topic (activity). I know this to be true because I’ve said something similar myself!]

How do we help our students see the big picture? How do we help them care about the topic?

McKenzie believes scaffolding is the key.

There are eight characteristics of scaffolding. “Scaffolding provides clear directions; clarifies purpose; keeps students on task; offers assessment to clarify expectations; points students to worthy sources; reduces uncertainty, surprise and disappointment; delivers efficiency; and creates momentum” (McKenzie, 1999).

One of these scaffolding characteristics really captured my interest, and it is: “Scaffolding reduces uncertainty, surprise and disappointment” (McKenzie, 1999). McKenzie believes instructors should test each step of a lesson to see what can go wrong thereby eliminating distractions and maximizing learning and efficiency. This really isn’t a focus of PBL. However, if other scaffolding items are in place as they apply to PBL … well … it’s another story completely. PBL does reduce uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment. Let’s see how this is accomplished.

Because PBL clarifies its purpose with a driving question, which is posted in the classroom and printed on all assignments, the students should know what they are striving for. The driving question keeps the big picture in mind. Students know they working towards the answer to this question. Also, the emphasis on connecting learning to the real world ensures PBL provides students with a purpose. With my project I have the students drawing up a contract and working in teams, meeting real storytellers (novelists, reporters, photographers), and creating and sharing their own stories with a live audience. The real world is ever present.

Another important aspect of scaffolding is keeping students on task. PBL definitely supports this! This is achieved through the planning and prepping stage of the PBL process. Just this week I completed a project calendar and a teaching and learning guide. The calendar clearly shows the students what they will be doing when. The tasks are there. The due dates are there. The learning materials are there. If this calendar was shared with students, and mine will be, then there shouldn’t be any surprises. When a student is away, he or she knows exactly what was covered and what must be done to catch up. The teaching and learning guide reinforces this as well. Although the guide emphasizes what students need to know and the lessons and materials required to support teaching and learning, it also shows the teacher what must be prepared to keep students on task (and learning). This approach to planning also provides worthy sources (even resources). Because everything is prepped beforehand, students can clearly see what sources they will need to help them complete their work. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is organized and accessible. The project resources page can and should be shared. With PBL everything is out in the open. There are no secrets.

Assessment is also an important aspect of scaffolding and PBL. All assessments (both formative and summative) must be decided upon before the project begins. In fact, PBL starts with the learning outcomes (or standards) and the assessments first; the activities and products are developed afterward. There is a method to this madness that’s for sure. The teacher must make sure that each outcome can be assessed–so the checklists, surveys, and rubrics are developed first. More importantly, each and every assessment must be shared with the students so they know what is expected of them. Similarly, each rubric in my project includes the learning outcomes/standards covered via the assignment/activity. By clarifying expectations through assessment, uncertainty and disappointment are alleviated.

McKenzie (1999) also emphasizes the importance of clear directions in Chapter 19 with this statement: “Web based research units offer step-by-step directions to explain just what students must do in order to meet the expectations for the learning activity.” Likewise, the PBL teacher supports student learning by providing step-by-step guidelines to ensure students meet expectations. First off, the assessments (which are written in student friendly language) clearly indicate what must be done to meet provincial or state standards. Secondly, students must produce a high quality product. To ensure this, teachers are expected to make time for practice presentations and multiple drafts during the project. The project calendar reflects this practice.

Momentum is important too. Each step leads to the next. Expectations should build as students move towards the culminating activity. In PBL the project is launched with an entry event. The purpose of this event is to capture student interest. It also lays down the foundation upon which the project is built. For instance, my project focuses on heroes and the importance of storytelling. Through TED Talks I am introducing my students to two professional storytellers who clearly explain who or what helped them get to where they are today. They also stress why stories are important to us as human beings. Science and math related careers are often touted as being more viable, more realistic. Yet professional storytellers are everywhere. Students need to see that there are other possibilities! Even if they do not want to become professional storytellers I want them to see how telling stories is not only a very human thing to do but is also an extension of who we are. Each and everyone of us is a storyteller! The assignments and activities in this project take the students on a journey, and each step leads to the next until the students reach their destination and answer the driving question: why do we revere heroes in our society?

Scaffolding is an important component of PBL. With PBL, your bike always has tires (and pedals, and gears, and brakes)! Nothing is missing. The whole point of PBL is to help students undertake a successful journey. The planning and preparing process is intentional. Nothing is left to chance. There are no secrets. Everything is out in the open. Although PBL requires a lot of effort to carry out, it is worth it–especially if it reduces uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment. Both scaffolding and PBL provide structure. Structure nurtures security. In my case (and my students), structure nurtures the storyteller in all of us.


Buck Institute For Education. (n.d.). Project based learning: Planning forms. Retrieved from http://bie.org/objects/cat/planning_forms

McKenzie, J. (1999). Scaffolding for success. Now On The Educational Technology Journal9(4). Retrieved from http://fno.org/dec99/scaffold.html