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Supporting Struggling Learners: A Study of Ladders

At first glance it may be difficult to see the connection between that student in your class who struggles to master a new math concept and the step stool you use in the kitchen you use to reach the top cabinet shelf. In my mind, the connection couldn’t be any clearer: you both need help to reach something that is currently out of reach. Every one of us struggles along the way, and every one of us must find a way to get past the difficulty. So why the ladder metaphor? Ladders are an everyday tool that folks use without a thought to climb to heights they cannot otherwise reach. Our students need ladders, too – metaphorically speaking.

As a little boy, I was always fascinated when my dad would drag his ladder out to work on some project like fixing the roof or cutting limbs off trees. I was not allowed to climb the ladder due to safety concerns I am certain, but in my young mind it was because my parents didn’t want me to have any fun. I didn’t understand that the ladder was a tool used to accomplish specific tasks. They weren’t designed to be played with or used foolishly. As I grew older, I came to appreciate the fact that a ladder, whether shiny and new or weathered and old, could lift me to places I couldn’t reach without one. As a commercial painter in my twenties, ladders were an essential tool in my collection. While I didn’t need one for every job, some tasks couldn’t be completed without one.

For those who don’t have a lot of experience with them, there really is a lot to know about ladders. First, they come in all shapes, sizes, and weights. Depending on the type of job you are working on, you will need different kinds to complete them. For example, you would use a step ladder to change a light bulb above the stairway rather than an extension ladder. Another important thing to know is that the higher you need to climb the sturdier the ladder must be. A step stool is usually sufficient to help you reach the top shelf in the closet, but it will never lift you high enough to clean out the gutters. A taller, sturdier ladder is needed for that. Also, it is important that you know when to move the ladder. Don’t be stubborn about moving the ladder when it is no longer easy to reach what you are doing. Overreaching can prove quite hazardous, and you may end up someplace you would rather not be (like the hospital.) Finally, ladders can be used to climb up onto a roof, but they can also be used to climb down into a hole. In other words, they get you where you need to go to successfully complete a job.

We typically don’t carry ladders into our classrooms with us, however. The tool we use with students is something we call “scaffolding.” As a painter, I valued my scaffolding more highly than my ladders. The reason being that they were larger, sturdier, and more stable than a ladder. If my project covered a large amount of space and I needed to spend more time in one place, the scaffold was the perfect platform to work from. A scaffold is a series of frameworks that I could put in place while I was reaching a difficult spot, and it would be gradually removed as the work progressed. Once the heights were reached, the scaffold could be disassembled one layer at a time until the lower, easier to reach sections were being painted. The same principle is true in the classroom. When presented with challenging content, some students need more support and longer support than others. Building the scaffolding next to a building doesn’t get the building painted; it merely allows the painter to reach the heights more easily. The painter still has to apply the paint. Providing individual student support doesn’t mean the teacher is doing the work; it means the student is in a place where he or she can do the work needed to master a concept.

As we carry this thought process forward, it is important to recognize the fact that taller people don’t need to use a ladder as often as those who are less tall. In the classroom setting, students learn a concept easily don’t need as much support as those who struggle. In terms of safety, some people are quite afraid to climb ladders. They fear falling. Struggling students often are reticent to try because it isn’t safe. They are afraid of falling, too. Kids need to know that they can succeed if they try. Scaffolding instruction provides that level of safety. By providing students necessary support, we give them hope.

So, what does scaffolding instruction look like? In most instances, it is merely reteaching a concept, explaining the task again in a simpler way, or breaking the task into manageable parts for students who have no idea how to do that. In more severe circumstances it may require pulling a small group aside to walk the students through the process together. Remember, you aren’t solving the problem for them; you are guiding them with questions and prompts as they discover their own way through the maze of mastery. Every student won’t need scaffolding every time, but every student may need support at some point. In my early years as a teacher, I felt that providing this level of support was tantamount to cheating, and my students either got it or they didn’t. I wish I could find those kids and apologize. You know your students, and you understand who struggles along the way. It is vital that we, as teachers, are mindful and purposeful about everything we do in our classroom. For this set of kids, you are the “teacher of the year,” and they are depending on you to help them reach the goal of mastering the grade level standards they are expected to meet. Will they need a stepstool, a ladder, or a full scaffold? Well, that depends. How far out of reach is mastery?

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