Sunday, February 18, 2018

Scaffolding Questions to Develop Deeper Understanding

Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a variety of schools and districts in the role of a coach.  Most of this work is focused on digital pedagogy so naturally, I am focused on observing and collecting evidence to get a handle on both the level of instruction and the learning that is taking place.  To allow educators to critically reflect on their practice I take many pictures of what I see, especially the types of learning activities with which students are engaged.  After numerous visits, we all debrief and discuss the good practices that were observed, but also areas needing improvement.

The message that I try to convey is that technology should not be separate from sound instructional design, but instead serve as a ubiquitous entity that supports or enhances curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  There are five main areas that are critical components of sound instructional design that I tend to focus on during debriefing conversations: level of questioning, authentic or interdisciplinary contexts, rigorous performance tasks, innovative assessments, and improved feedback. Of these five components, questioning techniques are something teachers and administrators can work to improve in every lesson. 

Here is what I struggle with based on what I actually see in practice.  In many cases, the "wow" factor of technology is placed ahead of getting kids to think deeply or authentically applying their learning.  Take tools like Kahoot and Quizizz.  There are no inherent issues with the tools themselves, educators just have to be more mindful of how they are being used.  Many of these tools add either a fun or competitive factor to the process of answering low-level, multiple-choice questions. Now I am not saying that foundational knowledge is not important. It is in many cases. However, if this the only way tools like this are utilized then we are missing a golden opportunity to challenge our learners to think deeply about concepts.

While conducting some coaching visits at Wells Elementary School recently, I saw Ms. Mican using Quizizz.  At first glance, all I saw were student responses to knowledge-based questions on the interactive whiteboard to check for understanding.  What I saw next really made me smile.  With the students sitting on the floor around the IWB Ms. Mican displayed the Quizziz results and then had the kids explain why they answered the way they did.  This is a great example of scaffolding and building on the content.  As I said previously, foundational knowledge provides a bridge to higher-level thinking and application.  They key is to make sure when using response-based technologies that the level of questioning is addressed through scaffolding techniques. The same can be said in regard to any type of activity without technology.

Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Questioning is an integral component of this process. NSEAD provides this synopsis on the importance of good questioning techniques. Check out the link in the previous sentence it contains a wealth of information to improve the level of questioning in any class. 
Historically, teachers have asked questions to check what has been learned and understood, to help them gauge whether to further review previous learning, increase or decrease the challenge, and assess whether students are ready to move forward and learn new information (factual checks - ie 'Closed' questions). This can be structured as a simple 'teacher versus the class' approach (Bat and Ball), where the teacher asks a question and accepts an answer from a volunteer, or selects/conscripts a specific student to answer. These approaches are implicit in any pedagogy, but teachers need a range of 'Open' questioning strategies to address different learning needs and situations. Teachers must also pitch questions effectively to raise the thinking challenge, target specific students or groups within the class.
The Rigor Relevance Framework provides all educators with guidance to scaffold questions.  It is an action-oriented continuum that describes putting knowledge to use by giving teachers a way to develop both instruction and assessment and gives students a way to project learning goals. This framework, based on traditional elements of education yet encouraging movement from the acquisition of knowledge to the application of knowledge, charts learning along the two dimensions of higher standards and student performance

Below is a breakdown of the four quadrants:

  • Quad A - Students gather and store bits of knowledge and information. Students are primarily expected to remember or understand this knowledge.
  • Quad B - Students use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions, and complete work. The highest level of application is to apply knowledge to new and unpredictable situations.
  • Quad C - Students extend and refine their acquired knowledge to be able to use that knowledge automatically and routinely to analyze and solve problems and create solutions.
  • Quad D - Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.

Below you will see how questions can be scaffolded according to each quadrant of the Rigor Relevance Framework.

With and without technology it is important to empower our learners to think. Scaffolding questions enhance learning and aids in the mastery of concepts by systematically building on knowledge and relevance. The ultimate goal is to develop competent thinkers and doers who can not only use knowledge in new ways but also construct their own.


  1. In languages we begin the process by constantly reminding ourselves to recycle language concepts.

  2. I love this! We ask so many questions as teachers. Rather than ask more, we need to make sure we're asking the right ones.