Scaffolding with Open-ended Projects

Giving students more control and ownership over their lessons and experiences in school is a double-edged sword. Educators want independent learners who want to find out more and know how to study but young people need to learn to self-regulate.

That process of learning how to manage time and own behaviour is hard on teachers! Not only is it difficult to witness children sabotaging their own education but our colleagues may judge the noisy classroom as chaotic and unproductive. One horrible project can be enough to put teachers off forever.

Teaching should not be like curling, the winter sport where you clear a path on the ice for the moving rocks. But it should not be like bobsleigh racing either, where you give the team a nudge and they careen down a mountain.

Procrastination, fall outs during group work and issues with focus are all part of the process. Make it easy on yourself (and your class), act as a coach by increasing the difficulty of completing an open ended project gradually. You can increase the difficulty in several directions. If your students are just starting out, it’s best to make one thing harder at a time. You will be able to see where they need the most practice on the first time around.

Base level

  • Have your students work in pairs or alone
  • Give a very detailed project specification and tell them how they will know they are successful
  • Give resources/a lecture on the topic at hand
  • Give them time management sheets (I love Gantt charts but they made one of my students cry, so use your discretion)
  • Make them discuss the big picture and the little details
  • Check in with them regularly with mini-deadlines for different stages of the project
  • Bring the class together to share progress updates every lesson
  • Have them grade themselves on their teamwork, time management and effort

More independence

  • Ask them to write their own project specification and success criteria
  • Leave them to decide if they want to focus on big picture or small details
  • Give no background information about the topic they are working on

More teamwork

  • Have larger groups (but usually no more than four, the fifth member of any team goes on cruise control)
  • Have them assign roles (like leader, writer, resources etc)
  • Alternatively: have pairs collaborate with another set as critical friends

More time management

  • Have them decide their own mini-deadlines
  • Take out the mini-deadlines entirely and only have the Big Date. This usually ends in disaster… and that’s alright. They have to learn not to leave things to the last minute somewhere. It might as well be with you. Just make sure it’s not a grade YOU need (like an important piece of coursework.)

Stick with it. Some students find this incredibly difficult at first and it is hard to watch them struggle. But stick with it. You will be amazed at their progress over the course of the year. You will also see how this independence affects other types of lessons: once a child knows how to, say, research a topic, write a script, perform it, edit the footage and evaluate it, they are more than capable of pretty much anything else you throw at them.

(Published first on ClassDojo’s Thought Partners blog)

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