Connections Between Scaffolding and Digital Portfolios

The work of Aida Walqui and other advocates for effective teaching of English learners stresses the importance of providing scaffolds for English learners. When educators provide the right kind of scaffold at the right time, students acquire language (and, more generally, knowledge). This way of thinking about how understanding (and language proficiency) is developed comes from the Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) initiative. The QTEL approach suggests that there are 6 kinds of scaffolds:

Bridging, in which students make a personal link between prior knowledge and new concepts

Contextualization, in which concepts are delivered via the senses (sounds, sights, smells, etc.)

Schema Building, in which students build on understanding to construct new knowledge

Metacognitive Development, in which learner autonomy is fostered by helping students assess and think about their own learning

Text Re-presentation, in which students are asked to display what they understand from one medium/mode of a text by re-presenting that understanding in another medium/mode (such as creating a visual based on what the student understood from a chapter in a science book)

Modeling, in which students get access to clear examples

Now, when I was at the QTEL Summer Institute in San Francisco a few months ago, I had digital portfolios on my mind. I was advocating that my school should implement digital portfolios on a wider scale. I am a big supporter of how digital portfolios can amplify student learning! It was pretty clear, though, that a significant portion of our school’s professional development time over the next couple of years was going to go toward helping staff members effectively teach English learners. We have over 800 English learners at my high school (and more every week!), so training in this area is incredibly appropriate. Still, I was looking for a way to link our school wide focus on English learners and my desire to tap into the learning benefits that digital portfolios can provide. As we reviewed the 6 types of scaffolds, I saw it clear as day: Digital portfolios can facilitate the implementation of the 6 types of scaffolds! I got so excited, I used a different color in my notes to remind me to come back to this idea in a blog post later:

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After a little more thinking, I realized that if I tried to show a connection between all 6 scaffolds and digital portfolios, it might read a little like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I didn’t want to force the issue inauthentically, but I still saw a clear connection between some of the scaffolds to help English learners acquire language (scaffolds for learners in general to acquire concepts through language) and work educators could be doing with students through digital portfolios. I concluded that digital portfolios can facilitate the implementation of at least 3 types of scaffolds: Metacognitive Development, Text Re-presentation, and Modeling:

6-types-of-scaffolding-vs-digital-portfolios-venn-diagram

Metacognitive Development:

Thinking about thinking is vital to causing authentic, lasting learning for our students. I worry that teachers sometimes over emphasize “covering” or “getting through” content, rather than taking the time that learners need to clarify what they have learned, how they learned it, and determine where they need to go next with the concept. I understand the pressure that educators feel to get through content, but our primary goal should be to cause learning–and if that means we don’t cover everything we set out to cover then so be it.

One of the most valuable skills we can foster in our students is learning how to learn. When we have students document their learning process, demonstrate what they have learned, and assess what their digital portfolios actually show they know, then we are using digital portfolios to help students build metacognitive skills. Students creating pages on a website that are meant to prove how and what they learned is a metacognitive act.

I very much see this as the primary value of having students curate their own digital portfolios. Putting knowledge on display is great. Building digital communication skills is awesome. But the most important pedagogical value that digital portfolios provide is their ability to continuously facilitate metacognitive development among our learners.

Text Re-Presentation:

When students are able to present their understanding of a concept using a medium that is different from the source medium, that is text re-presentation. Students are re-presenting ideas in another format. screenshot-2016-10-30-at-4-46-39-pm

Implementing this scaffold means to give students learning tasks that ask them to re-present their understanding. So, if a student has to re-present their understanding of a concept that they heard about in a class lecture, why not have them do so by creating and posting a video about the concept on a page of their digital portfolio?

Digital portfolios offer many other ways that students can re-present ideas from source material. Students can blog about their personal learning/understanding related to the text, create visuals, create videos, create presentations, embed images of the learning process–text re-presentation can take on many forms.

A focus on digital portfolios as the way to assess student learning can facilitate the implementation of text re-presentation.

Modeling:

Giving students clear examples of how to demonstrate learning on digital portfolios becomes much easier when you can refer them to other students’ digital portfolios. I’ve listed modeling last because it will probably come last in your own implementation of digital portfolios–at least as far as this kind of modeling is concerned. Sure teachers can create student mock-ups of what they would like students to do on digital portfolios, but the more authentic models will come when students can see how other students incorporated their learning onto their websites in creative and innovative ways.

Of course, we’ll continue to expect original meaning-making from students. Seeing how last year’s students demonstrated their understanding of meiosis and mitosis doesn’t give this year’s students license to copy and paste. This is why it’s so critical that students see their digital portfolios as representative of their own personal learning story. But if seeing an explanation from last year’s students helps this year’s students develop their understanding, all the better.

Scaffolding student learning and implementing digital portfolios are not mutually exclusive ventures. We don’t have to decide between one and the other. Just as with all technology integration in the classroom, it should never be about the technology. This isn’t a blog post about technology. It’s not really a blog post about digital portfolios. It’s a blog post about learning and using the tools at our disposal to help students learn more deeply. My argument is simply that digital portfolios can facilitate some of the work that is most vital to educators:

  • Implement scaffolds as needed to help learners, especially English language learners
  • Encourage students to focus on the value of learning and their own learning process
  • Challenge students to assess for themselves what they really understand and what they might need more help with

 

Sources and References:

Couros, G. (2016, August 16). 7 Important Questions Before Implementing Digital Portfolios [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/6602

Ritchart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: how to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walqui, A. & van Lier L. (2010). Scaffolding the academic success of adolescent English language learners: a pedagogy of promise. San Francisco: WestEd.

QTEL Summer Institute

#INFO233 PLN Post 4

The week of July 18th I was able to go to The Quality Teaching for English Learners Summer Institute in San Francisco with a team of educators from my school. I was connected to this professional development opportunity through Brent Enerva (@mrenerva). Brent was drawn to this institute as a science teacher working on effectively implementing Next Generation Science Standards with a high English learning population. However, he initially thought that the cost would be prohibitive (flight, hotel, registration would add up to about $4,000). Still, he asked our school site council, and not only was he approved, it was suggested that he bring a team of educators. To make a long story short, with the support of our school site council and our principal (@KimPattersonECV), Brent brought a team of five to this valuable (and expensive) learning opportunity.

20160719_151959One lesson from this experience is that it never hurts to ask when you see a valuable PD experience come along. I am very glad that I got to participate in the QTEL Summer Institute. I spent about 6 hours a day learning in my sessions, and then I spent time in the afternoons exploring San Francisco with colleagues while processing what we were learning.

Summary of Learning20160718_080808

The institute was held in the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio. I was able to hear from icons of English learner instruction such as Aida Walqui and Kenji Hakuta. Our session leader gave us instruction on QTEL’s 3 moments approach to designing lessons for English learners: Preparing the learner, Interacting with the text, and Extending student learning. As a Trainer of Trainers in SDAIE, I was familiar with these concepts, but participating in an immersive training like this Summer Institute helped me internalize how keeping QTEL’s 3 moments in mind will ensure effective implementation of ELD standards. I look forward to bringing what I learned to future meetings and trainings with staff members this school year.


Take Aways

The most significant connections I made during this training were:

1. If learning, especially language learning, is social, then we should facilitate the kinds of interactions among students that promote language exchange.

2. ZPD! Is it bad that after 10 years of being an educator that I’m still growing in my understanding of Vygotsky’s concept? Before, I thought of ZPD as a magical realm in a student’s ability where he/she could still access a slightly more difficult task, like a step on a staircase that’s not too easy and not too hard to take. Now I understand ZPD, I believe, more accurately. The Zone of Proximal Development is the space in which all learning occurs. It is the zone in which a learner has ventured out of what is known and taken a risk to build new knowledge. This knowledge building path is something that, in order to be authentic and substantive learning, the learner must take on his/her own. This is why it is soooo much more meaningful to have learners “discover” concepts rather than simply having the teacher tell him/her the concept. In order for the learning to “stick,” the learner has to be the one to build the learning in his/her own mind (through things like quality interactions with peers within learning activities). It’s the teacher’s job to notice when and how a student is venturing into the ZPD and supporting that journey as needed through instructional scaffolds.

20160719_2027273. Instructional scaffolds! How appropriate that right across the street from my hotel, there were scaffolds set up! I had to snap a picture. Just as with ZPD, I feel like my understanding of what scaffolds are have changed due to this training. Before, I thought that instructional scaffolds were those meticulously pre-planned supports that I, as an educator, would put into place as part of a lesson in order to help students reach a high level of understanding. Now I understand instructional scaffolds to be:

  • temporary (I already knew that)
  • given to students as needed (I kind of knew that, but now I understand why)
  • based on the risks students make venturing into the ZPD (wow!)

That last point is what felt new to me. So, in order for any real learning to occur, a student must venture into the ZPD, take a risk, to build new knowledge. That step, that risk taking, must be based on something the student wants to do/learn. If the thing the student wants to do/learn is too difficult, that’s when the teacher adds scaffolds. With my misunderstanding of scaffolds, I was creating scaffolds for a path of learning that I predetermined students would take. That’s not how people learn. Instead, I should be providing scaffolds to help students with a learning path that they want to take. Put it this way: if a worker needs to get work done on a 4th story window of an east-facing wall, I shouldn’t be constructing scaffolds to a window on the 6th story of a south-facing wall. The worker doesn’t want to get there, so the scaffold is useless. I can hear the opposition to this idea: “But I want my student to learn X, not Y!” I get it! But if we don’t get our students to want to learn X, no scaffolds in the world are going to cause them to truly learn it. And until we figure out ways to get students to want to learn X, why not experiment a little and learn some Y?