Our latest analysis of classroom assignments found a troubling mismatch in the level of rigor demanded by high standards and the level asked for in day-to-day assignments given to students. Among the problems we found? Instead of a clear progression in the level of cognitive challenge, too many assignments showed over-scaffolding — meaning much of the work was done for students rather than by them.

During our recent Equity in Motion convening, one teacher shared how she found (and corrected) an instance of over-scaffolding in her classroom:

“I usually read to my class of English-language learners, but one day I asked, ‘Do you want to read yourselves?’ Every one of them said yes. Of course, I checked for understanding to be able to support them if needed. But if I let kids try to read by themselves in class, it’s OK if they struggle for a bit — we can work together afterwards to be sure they get it. And they’ll need to be able to do it on their own on the end-of-year assessment.”

Her story helped make one of the convening’s big lessons concrete: If students only rarely get to struggle with complex skills or big ideas, they’ll never hone their ability to think critically and come up with ideas and solve problems on their own. There are times when a tightly scripted assignment is appropriate, of course, but those should be balanced with deeper level work.

“Scaffolding is different things for different student learners,” Joan Dabrowski, who co-authored the analysis and report, said at the convening. “It’s about knowing where your kids are and what they need.” But educators can never be sure of where their kids are if they don’t give them the chance to show what they’re capable of. That requires teachers to have faith, not just in their kids, but in their own ability to get students back on track if things don’t go well.

And teachers aren’t always comfortable pushing students in that way. As one instructional coach noted, “Sometimes we rely so heavily on scaffolds that we don’t let kids try. Teachers are afraid to let kids move away from that.”

Not only does that hinder student growth, it can send kids the message that their teachers don’t have faith in their abilities — which turns assignments into more of an exercise in compliance than learning. Often in the assignments we analyzed, supports such as note-taking prompts seem to be an end rather than a means; only rarely did a writing assignment require students to use their notes or annotations. As another convening participant noted, “We need to be explicit with students about why we use scaffolds — not ‘because I said so,’ but for a greater purpose.” And no one can give students a reason why they should do something without knowing that reason herself.

The bottom line? Teachers, schools, and districts need to be strategic about when, how, and why they use scaffolds in support of student learning. And they also need to know when to remove the scaffolds so that students are empowered to practice, and eventually master, essential skills on their own.

Photo: Nakeia Drummond leads a session during the convening in Baltimore.