Scaffolding or Teaching?

There has been uproar recently about teaching prescriptions arising from the Common Core State Standards. In a guide for publishers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (the main authors of the standards for English Language Arts) discourage teachers from engaging students in “pre-reading” activities. Students should focus directly on the text, without distraction. Teachers may provide “scaffolding” (that is, necessary information or other instructional support) but should not do anything to replace the students’ actual reading. Coleman and Pimentel revised the guidelines in April in response to criticisms and concerns. But the revised version still assumes that an informational lesson or the offering of insight is “scaffolding.”

Not all direct instruction is scaffolding, though. The very term “scaffolding” implies that students should ultimately be doing the work on their own. Teachers provide temporary support to help them get there, then take it away when they don’t need it any more. For instance, a teacher might provide vocabulary words and their meanings, then provide the words and have the students look them up, then have students identify and look up words on their own.

But when  we study literature, our independent reading is only part of what we do. We learn, also, from classmates and the teacher. Their insights add to our own. In college and graduate school, the professor is supposed to offer insights into the text. This isn’t “scaffolding.” This is teaching and scholarship.

As students advance in a subject (let’s continue to consider English for now), two things happen at once. On the one hand, they become capable of handling the material independently at a certain level. On the other, they come to recognize that there’s more to be grasped. Certain kinds of instruction do indeed “scaffold” the material to help the students gain basic understanding. Other kinds take them beyond that basic understanding. The categories overlap, of course.

So the question becomes: what are we teaching? There’s a difference between literacy and literature instruction; the one focuses on reading; the other, on interpretation of specific works. In the elementary years, literacy may be the focus. Students read across the subjects and build knowledge along the way. They reach a point where they can pick up a book, read it with little help, and answer questions about it. Teachers should give them essential background information so that they ultimately won’t need such help. But as they advance through the grades, the focus of English class moves toward literature. The point now is to help them see things in a work that aren’t obvious even after a careful reading.

Given the differences between literacy and literature study, where do “pre-reading” activities (activities that prepare for the reading) come into play? When should they be avoided? Certain kinds of “pre-reading” activities distract and deflect from the text, no matter what the level. I have seen lessons that did everything but delve into the book. Students looked at the picture on the cover, made predictions about the text, connected these predictions to their own lives, and on and on. I saw a lesson on Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” where students spent most of the time making lists of things that scared them. I have seen “genre” lessons—even in first grade—where students learned to determine a book’s genre and make guesses about its content before reading it. (I have seen similar activities, albeit a little fancier-sounding, in some graduate school courses.) Often I have wanted to say: “For crying out loud, let’s read the book!”

But information provided by the teacher can be interesting and helpful, even essential. Many works assume knowledge on the reader’s part, so it makes sense to give students this. I assume that the original audience of Homer’s Iliad knew who Athena was and where Troy was. They also understood, at least instinctively, what dactylic hexameter was; they grasped not only the story line, but its cadences. Why not give young students (and older students) such an entrance into the reading? If students already know their Greek mythology, why not revisit it? And if the teacher knows Greek, why shouldn’t she recite a little of the original Homer for them? Wouldn’t that give them a sense of its sounds and rhythms?

Some information may not be essential but may bring students farther into the text. This spring, when teaching Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich to tenth graders, I brought in a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I wanted the students to consider Aristotle’s idea of virtue as a mean, then look at the “happy mean” of Ivan Ilyich’s life and consider why this is so different from the sort of virtue that Aristotle describes. Granted, the students could have read Tolstoy’s story without the Aristotle passage. They would even have understood that Ivan Ilyich’s “happy mean” was not so happy. But the juxtaposition with the Aristotle gave them a greater sense of Tolstoy’s irony and of Ivan Ilyich’s miserable situation. I would not call this scaffolding.

Nor would I call “scaffolding” what my college professors have taught me. I remember reading Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” for the first time, in Russian. The professor pointed out the skewed logic as she read passages aloud and laughed herself to tears. We were all capable of understanding the Russian text. But she pointed out Gogol’s subtle logical tricks and wordplay—things that made us pay all the more attention. Yes, I would have enjoyed Gogol even without this instruction, but it was this practice of listening to certain passages, hearing her comment on them, reading them again to myself, and thinking about them some more that made me fall in love with his work. I ended up writing my dissertation on Gogol.

So, we have two complementary truths, two aspects of education. One is that schools should bring students to a point of independence. Another is that the independence is fullest and richest when we continue to learn from others. The Common Core State Standards, and education policy overall, should acknowledge this latter truth.

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