Skip to content

March 3, 2010


Scaffolding for Deep Understanding

by Peter Skillen

How CAN we help our students be the kind of thinkers we want?

My friend and colleague, @brendasherry, recently wrote a thoughtful post called What is Deep Understanding?  She asked several excellent questions:

  • what kind of thinkers do we want our students to be?
  • what is deep understanding?
  • can schools really provide the learning environment to nurture and develop it?

In thinking about these questions, I would like to ask: “How can we help novice learners become more expert learners?”

Novice Learners versus Expert Learners

Having said that, let’s look at the difference between novice and expert learner.

  • Novices typically don’t plan, monitor, and reflect on their learning

    • These metacognitive skills include setting goals and subgoals; identifying approaches; monitoring one’s progress to the task; revising goals where necessary; and, reflection after task completion.
  • Expert learners use ‘multiple representations’

    • to build a fuller, more complete understanding. And, of course multimedia allows for this – text, graphics, sound, dynamic models.
  • Novices typically don’t generate a number of potential solution strategies

    • Novices, when presented with a task, typically jump at the first idea that comes to mind. Expert learners, on the other hand, tend to generate and evaluate a number of potential approaches to the problem.
  • Novices engage in ‘knowledge telling’ rather than ‘knowledge transformation’

    • One 5th grade girl, Larissa, was planning to do her project on potato production in Prince Edward Island. She was reminded, in a collaborative journal-writing environment, that the class had studied acid rain for the last month. Larissa was challenged to make sense of that and to determine if acid rain had had any impact on potato production. This improvement in her strategy was more representative of ‘expert’ behaviour.
  • Expert learners make multiple passes at knowledge

    • Many sources should be ‘read’ – books, videos, Internet, PLN (Personal Learning Network – Facebook, Twitter).
  • Experts view ‘mistakes’ as opportunities to learn

    • ‘Debugging’ strategies are invoked when things go wrong. Therefore, you backtrack through your thinking – a means to ‘think about one’s thinking’. Experts recognize this.  Novices typically don’t.
  • Experts are able to transfer their learning to other domains

    • Novices don’t naturally transfer their understandings to other tasks or to other subject domains.
  • Experts realize that the ‘social context’ is important to learning

    • That learning takes place in a social context is a significant issue. This is why collaboration or ‘cooperative learning’ has become so popular – but it has to be more than social collaboration. Cognitive collaboration needs to be encouraged. As students communicate their ideas, they learn to clarify, refine, and consolidate their thinking. Schoenfeld has said that, ‘Groups are not just a convenient way to accumulate the individual knowledge of their members.  They give rise synergistically to insights and solutions that would not come about without them.’

Scaffolded Journal Writing

So, how can we help students become more expert?  In an effort to implement all this in the classroom, I have used collaborative, journal writing environments over the years.  I used to do it with HyperCard back in the day, then with FileMaker Pro, then LCSI created Journal Zone with me, and recently I have been using blogs, wikis and Diigo.

I have found that, in addition to the obvious strategies of student-driven, authentic inquiry-based projects that scaffolded, collaborative journal writing is helpful to move kids beyond the social comments.  Here are some sentence starters I have used.

The ‘planning’ starters might be used at the beginning of the work session; the ‘reflection’ starters at the end.  The ‘comment or discussion’ starters can be used to help kids give more substantive feedback to peers.  The ‘elaboration triggers’ are connecting words or phrases that can be used to help kids extend their thinking beyond what they might otherwise. So once they write something, they are encouraged to check the list of ‘elaboration triggers’ to think more deeply.

These starters are obviously designed to address the issue of moving the learner along the continuum from novice to expert.


Several challenges exist.  One, this can become simply another classroom exercise — worksheet-like.  NOT the intent.  Try to engage your students in developing their own sentence starters.  Engage in the discussion by adding comments that are substantive.  Model what you want the kids to do.  Encourage the philosophy in the classroom that ‘thinking is a highly valued activity’.  Two, the tools (wikis, blogs, Diigo) are not designed to ease the use of these starters.  I have kids copy and paste the ones they want to use into their post or into their reply.  Or, with Diigo, they can simply copy and paste them from any text file available.  But, availability is the issue. Three, ideally you want the kids generalizing this behaviour and appropriating the use of deep discourse.  In order for that to be the case, it must serve the kids well. This may require your effort in making the connection.

Planning Starters

I want to know…
I want to learn…
I think…
My goals for this project are…
I don’t understand…
I wonder…
I am having difficulty with…
I am breaking my project into…
A similar task I have had before is…
The steps I plan to follow are…
Different ways to solve this task…

Reflection Starters

I learned…
Things I want to learn are…
I think…
I have managed to…
I have changed my plan…
I didn’t get as far as I planned because…
I got further than I had planned because…
The steps I did first were…
My next step will be…

Comment or Discussion Starters

I agree with you because …
I disagree with you because…
I think…
I believe…
Have you thought about…
I am confused…
Another explanation…
I don’t understand…
You need to…
Your journal entry would be better if…

Elaboration Triggers

thanks to
that’s how
that’s why
in that case
in view of
look forward to
give up
as a result of
16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 4 2010

    Okay…now you’ve got me thinking back! 🙂

    I was recalling this article review and how it mentions deepening thinking with respect to novice learners becoming more expert. It’s about going deeper in a virtual world, but it ties in really nicely with the practical things you’ve suggested here. Vygotsky, situated learning theory, all that good stuff!

    I love all of these prompts and will be able to pass them along to the teachers I work with now that you’ve made this great post on your blog!

    Thanks for extending my learning once again! 🙂

    • pskillen
      Mar 8 2010

      Thx Brenda. I am hoping that these ‘prompts’ lead to a habit of ‘thinking about thinking’. As I said, it is so easy to fall into the trap of having the prompts just becoming another exercise. The kids sure see it that way at first, so we all need to be careful to keep the big picture in mind.

      Thank you!

  2. Mar 5 2010

    Nice work, Peter. It’s great to see all of these ideas captured in one place.


    • pskillen
      Mar 8 2010

      Hey Ron. Thx for the comment! More coming. 🙂

  3. Debby O.
    Nov 3 2012

    This information is very interesting! I liked how it outlined the differences between novice learners and expert learners! What a great way to help improve our teaching styles and help students learn. We can make a difference!

    • Nov 4 2012

      Thank you so much Debby.
      How do you think you might use this in your class?

  4. Aug 21 2013

    Amazing! Its truly awesome piece of writing, I have got much
    clear idea regarding from this paragraph.

  5. Sep 24 2014

    excellent put up, very informative. I’m wondering why the other experts of this sector do not notice this.
    You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you have a great readers’
    base already!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. “It’s not about the tool” – a naïve myth. « The Construction Zone
  2. Collaborative Projects: What Does It Mean to ‘Co-construct’? « The Construction Zone
  3. “It’s not about the tool” – a naïve myth. « Cooperative Catalyst
  4. Critical Thinking using “Skype in the Classroom” | The Construction Zone
  5. My daily readings 06/04/2013 | Strange Kite
  6. Metacognition: A ‘Way of Being’ in the Classroom | The Construction Zone
  7. To Question IS the Answer! | The Construction Zone
  8. ‘Making’ Does Not Equal ‘Constructionism’ | Inquire Within

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments