Struggle With Concepts. Scaffold Projects.

In a recent Edublogger post, author Ronnie Burt shared a debate he was having with fellow author Sue Waters.

The question: Should teachers allow students to struggle with concepts, or should teachers scaffold information by walking students through a step-by-step process?

My answer: Yes.

Struggle with Concepts

In the context of math instruction, students need should be struggling with concepts before they are led through paper-pencil activities. I can immediately pick out students who learned step-by-step math processes before understanding concepts. Here are a few telltale signs:

  • When given a problem such as 100 – 2, they will stack the numbers and regroup or borrow.
  • When asked what 1/3 looks like, they look at you with a blank stare.
  • When asked What is area? they respond “Area is base times height”.
  • When asked What is pi? they respond “3.14”.

Arguably the most famous of the math bloggers, Dan Meyer, poses thee-act plays and mathematical dilemmas. After viewing the first of three acts or a picture like the one below, students are asked to pose questions, decide what they need to know, and answer their own questions.

The picture below incited fascinating student conversation and solid application of math concepts in a way that was far from linear.


In the context of language arts, students should be struggling with the “big Idea” of a book through discussions. While I could lead students to a “big idea” using scaffolded comprehension questions, organic conversations are far more meaningful.

Rob Ferrin, teacher of a Humanities in Action course, has students struggle with World View Questions such as Is the group more important than the individual or is the individual more important than the group? or Is violence an inborn part of who we are (nature) or is violence something we learn from society (nurture)? During the semester, students research, reflect, and analyze both local and world issues. Students’ thinking is then brought back to the World View Questions in a way that causes students to defend, change or refine their worldview.

When students struggle with concepts, they construct meaning.

Scaffold Projects

Learning can be messy. Final projects must be clear because, in general, projects communicate learning.

A previous posts explains in great detail the process of scaffolding student projects: Keeping Students Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Classroom.

In short, students need to decide on the message they want to communicate and the medium that will best communicate that message. Then, students list the project steps, backward plan, and follow through with the process.

The Humanities in Action course requires students to create a final project. The Hong Kong Worldview project guidelines are scaffolded. Both steps and expectations are clear.


The Edublogger post rightly stated that research is available to defend instructional practices where students struggle with concepts and instructional practices that involve scaffolding. The guideline “struggle with concepts, scaffold projects” is, admittedly, an oversimplification. Students who have a low tolerance for uncertainty will learn most concepts better with scaffolding. Other students will get bogged down in linear processes.

In the end, the answer lies in the extent to which “Teachers Know the Subjects They Teach and How to Teach Those Subjects to Students” (NBPTS Proposition 2) and “Teachers are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning” (NBPTS Proposition 3). If teachers know their subject matter and teachers understand the needs of their students, they will be able to let students struggle when necessary and scaffold learning when necessary.

What’s your opinion?

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