Working and learning with education students as they grapple with what it means to be a teacher is tremendously rewarding. My experience as a Faculty Associate was just over two years ago and I now have opportunities to work alongside former students – colleague to colleague.
I recently visited a former student’s classroom and was in awe of her skill, instructional practice, and rapport with her students. We no longer spoke about the basics of managing the class, setting a purpose for a lesson or building trust and relationships with students, staff and parents. Instead, Ms. S and I tackled deep issues about teaching and learning in the year 2011:
- how to organize and record summative assessment information beyond a list of scores to be averaged
- how to further differentiate a math lesson
- why an authentic audience is important for a writing project
- how to meaningfully involve parents in the education process
- how to increase student ownership of learning
Scaffolding vs. Teacher Control
Ms. S is working intentionally and thoughtfully towards increasing student ownership of learning. She has many structures in place to do so, such as providing students with choice in how they demonstrate understanding, setting their own timelines, and gauging their own readiness to move on. Yet, like so many teachers, Ms. S wonders whether she is over-managing the learning environment or simply scaffolding for success.
In our teacher education module, we explored the notion of “enabling constraints.” I discovered the term in the book, Engaging Minds. Enabling constraints are about opening possibilities by limiting choices.Very simply put, too much choice is overwhelming. Too little choice is restrictive, squelching learning and creativity. By giving choices in lesson activities and projects within a given structure we are providing enabling constraints.
Enabling constraints are not prescriptive; they don’t dictate what MUST be done, rather they are expansive, indicating what MIGHT be done… from Engaging Minds (2000), Davis, Sumara, Luce-Kapler, p. 193
At the university, we investigated this idea by giving groups of student teachers a bag of Lego and instructions. The instructions ranged from one word: Build to more detailed instructions such as Build, but a red piece must touch a yellow piece, a green must touch a blue and your structure cannot be more than 5 cm tall. In our debrief, students noted that too little information was discomforting, they were not sure of the purpose or success criteria. Too much information, on the other hand, limited creativity and imagination. When teachers frame a question or task using enabling constraints, we allow for flexible, responsive teaching and learning.