Scaffolding : a question of balance for teachers-bricoleurs

Teachers are not so much concerned by the appearance of their classrooms or how fancy they look. Their main concern is to mobilize all the resources at hand to achieve their goal.  In words of  Claude Lévi-Strauss they are “bricoleurs”, and the rules of their game “are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand”.

Huberman developed his vision [Huberman: the model of the independent artisan in teachers’ professional relations in: J.W. Little & M W. McLaughlin (Eds) Teachers’ Work : individuals, colleagues, and contexts (New York, Teachers College Press) 1993] of a teacher “who is always busy, creating or repairing learning activities of different kinds with a distinctive style or signature”.

Joan Talbert and Milbrey McLaughlin developed his analogy between teaching, artisanship and jazz improvisation in their analysis of the artisan model of teaching. Bricolage in this context is no longer a “second best solution” but is central to creative thinking. In the words of Seymour Papert, “bricolage is a way to learn and solve problems by trying, testing, playing around”.

Teachers are used to “working at a height above the ground” and look like high wire artists walking a tightrope in their attempt to catch their students’ attention. They set up their scaffolds in the classrooms for an academic year, just the time they are given to fix or improve education.

Scaffolding is not only another word for teaching. It is also a way of teaching, Psychologist and social constructivist, Lev Vygotsky, refers to  scaffolding as  designing activities that support the students as they are led through the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD).  A learner can finalize the acquisition of a given skill through interaction with a teacher or a skilled peer.



What is the role of technology for the teacher-bricoleur?

We will argue that the bricoleur-teacher stimulates creativity in the classroom in a much more powerful and sustainable way than through the use of technology alone. Our teacher-bricoleur knows  the importance of teacher-student relationships, confirmed by John Hattie  to explain student achievement. Classroom discussion, reciprocal teaching, jigsaw method, feedback intervention are some of the techniques and tools with the highest probability of success while online and digital tools have among the lowest.

Jim Groom, in his evocation of The Glass Bees, reminds us that “teaching and learning are not done by technology, but rather people thinking and working together”.

“Thinking and working together” with the help of technology in the classroom remains a true question of balance for our teachers-bricoleurs working on their scaffolds. We will continue exploring this high-flying issue.


Visitor or classroom resident?

The success and sustainability of innovative online learning solutions rely on the capacity to engage learners in a continuous way, over a course period or over a school year. More committed learners means more interactions, more knowledge.

How do you measure commitment? Commitment can be both quantitative (number of hours spent, number of videos watched, number of interactions…) and qualitative (intensity of interaction, quality of contribution to dialogue…).

Is it easy to commit online? You first need to be at ease with a digital environment. In the words of Prensky, author of ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’; these digital natives, i.e. those who are entirely at ease within a digital environment, are the most likely to engage.

However, as made clear in an article by White and le Cornu, the main issue is not so much in being a digital native or not but in being an online resident or a mere visitor.

“Visitors are anonymous, their activity invisible and see the Web as primarily a set of tools. (…) Residents on the contrary see the Web as a place, perhaps like a park or a building in which there are clusters of friends and colleagues whom they can approach and with whom they can share information about their life and work.”

The metaphor of place will be crucial for the future of online learning. Danah Boyd, in her book ‘It’s Complicated’, insists on how social media has become an important public space where teens can gather and socialise broadly with peers. She explains how social media has enabled youth to participate in and help create what she calls networked publics.

David Weinberger, author of ‘Too Big to Know’, argues that a network of people connected in discussion and argument know more than the sum of what the individual knows. This means that the value of a network will grow in an exponential way.

How do we apply these concepts to the classroom? For a teacher using online learning tools, success will depend on his/her capacity to commit students as ‘residents’ and not ‘visitors’, which means creating a network of connected people: a networked public.

The human side of education

“Without falling too far into nostalgia, I still believe that the mysterious power of teacher-student interactions can’t truly be replaced by technology…” This article raises the fundamental issue of teacher-student interactions as a core determinant of learning. Research has shown that student interaction, whether it is classroom discussion or other participatory activities, is one of the foundations of knowledge assimilation and academic success.

Teacher-student interaction reveals the human side of education and we will all agree with the author that technology won’t replace it. But are we so sure that these interactions still exist in a traditional classroom.

The problem is not one of conviction or dogma: for a learner, to learn is not simply to acquire a definite amount of knowledge but to engage in personal interaction with the teacher and the learners. Interaction between students, whether in class discussions or other participatory activities, is central to knowledge assimilation and academic achievement.experiences, develop appropriate levels of autonomy and independence.




However, overcrowded classrooms, too heavy curriculum, competition for grades, violence and bullying at school are all symptoms or causes of a lack of interaction. Who talks to who and when during school hours?

This is where digital technology should make a difference in the classroom and contribute to:

  • Increase the enjoyment and emotional connection that teachers have with students
  • Enhance peer interactions;
  • Decrease the level of aggressive relationships
  • Prevent misbehaviour in daily routine
  • Ensure maximum time is spent in learning activities
  • Facilitate group activities so that learning opportunities are maximized.
  • Expand participation and learning through feedback to students
  • Improve teachers’ responsiveness to students’ needs;

Fully participatory classrooms are the one that are built in interaction and embed participation whatever the topic, the moment, the setting. The pedagogical concept behind interaction has therefore to be very refined and it has nothing to do with technology.

Far from establishing a distance, digital solutions can help bridge a gap between less and more participatory students, enabling the teacher to dedicate more time to those who need it most.

Far from dissimulating the human side of education, technology helps respond to basic needs, making the teacher a mentor and the student an actor of his own learning.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in the classroom

You remember Mary Poppins? How many teachers dream to have her magical powers when they face a sleepy classroom on a gloomy Monday morning!

One of teacher’s main challenge is to propose learning experiences that allow genuine student engagement.

In a classroom, the learning process is usually driven by the teacher. The teacher designs the lesson, defines the learning objectives, is in charge of student assessment. Often the result is a top down process that leaves a number of students “off the road”.

There is no magical solution to raise student engagement. Alternative school models haven’t proved significantly more efficient than “traditional” ones. A democratic school for instance where students have an equal say than teachers is no guarantee of student engagement.

The success depends on the degree of ownership that can be gained at the student level, i.e. if they are fully part of the learning process. Participation is a critical point in the classroom daily routine.

It doesn’t necessarily imply adopting new learning models such as project-based learning, cooperative or collaborative learning.  These models are often presented as a solution to student lack of engagement and participation. But we underestimate the complexity of implementing these new models. Neither the teachers, nor the schools are prepared while simple tools can help teachers achieve their engagement goals.

Technology in the classroom must be a facilitator of participation that teachers should use more (and not be afraid of) in their day to day teaching in the classroom.

If every student is using a digital device in the classroom, this is how it should work:

- the teacher creates a well structured lesson that enable every student to move forward at his/her own pace; the lesson has to be simply designed. Often a single picture with an insightful question makes the job!

- students must only require teacher’s attention if they really need it to move forward;

- teacher must know who needs attention at all time simply by having a look at their screen;

- teacher must be able to share a student’s contribution with the whole class anytime;

This super simple technology should have two key features:

- a powerful and easy to use editorial tool to create lessons in minutes and enable teacher and students to annotate them live;

- a shared screen functionality that give the teacher the possibility to interact live with all students’ screens.

No need to call Mary Poppins!

Unio by Harness does it!

 You can find out more about Unio here.




Monopsony in Blue: Is there a market for Edtech?

Is there a market for Edtech?

Education is one of the favoured market for a new generation of entrepreneurs. Edtech’s ambition is to rhyme with Fintech, Healthtech, Cleantech… and Edtech funds ambition to transform into billions the Edtech magic.

Counting by the number of startups or application apps, this new eldorado is already there.

But a paradox remains: “why is it so hard for Edtech startups to sell to schools?”. In a recent article, there was an attempt to give some explanations:

  • It is not easy to reach the people who make the decisions.
  • There is fear of change and new things.
  • There are many stakeholders.
  • The market is overcrowded.
  • Products lack validation.

In fact, they are all part of the same story: all innovations target the same decision makers. When it comes to innovation in the classroom, nothing can be done without the teacher’s asentment (even if the intention would be to substitute him or her!) and the head master’s agreement.

The Edtech market has therefore a unique characteristic: it is a one-buyer market or better said, a monopsony. Only one buyer (the school) interacts with many potential sellers (the Edtech entrepreneurs) and has therefore almost absolute market power.

In this monopsony, there is no other alternative than to convince, seduce, attract the teacher. New strategies could be designed and joining forces may be desirable: why should entrepreneurs struggle desperately and separately to capture teachers’ attention. Joint offers could be made. New forms of distribution could be envisaged.

Monopsony in Blue

Monopsony in Blue


But to start with, there is a core issue to take into consideration: teacher’s risk preference. In other words, are teachers ready to take risks to change their practices and innovate in the classroom?

Intuition often says no and research evidences seem to confirm it.  Bowen analyses Teacher Risk Preferences  and by comparing preferences of new teachers with those entering other professions, he finds that individuals choosing to teach are significantly more risk averse.

He also suggests that new policies introducing for instance performance incentives for teachers (performance pay programs) could attract less risk-averse individuals into the teaching profession. In the meanwhile the Edtech entrepreneurs should invest time and money to train a new generation of teachers into innovation.

Does edtech work?

Why do you think your solution works?

This question was asked by Rose Luckin to some of the world brightest edtech entrepreneurs gathered in London for the GESA – Global Edtech Startups Awards – final event last January, 23.

Sometimes seemingly innocent questions happen to be very tricky. This is the case with edtech innovators. This is THE question they don’t like to hear!

Why does it work? No clear answers emerged:

- because we know it

- because our sales are growing

- because our users tell us so

- because all our learners found a job

- because you can read it in the press…


Rose – and many of us – wanted strong evidences that demonstrate the impact of an edtech solution on learning.

Her latest book – Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology – raises three main questions:

- how and why learning happens and how different technologies can enhance it
- how engage a variety of learners through technology and helping them benefit from it
- how technology can support teaching.

book rose

Edtech entrepreneurs should depart from complacency, take their impact analysis one step further and investigate their real impact on learning.

There are many ways to do it:

-       Embed impact analysis in the whole learning process

-       Run randomized controlled trial directly with their users

-       Partner with independent evaluators to coordinate the process

But more importantly, edtech entrepreneurs should take into account the results of the impact analysis to adapt their solutions to users’ needs.

Edtech magic requires evidence to succeed. Olli Vallo from Kokoa in Finland will agree. His agency just does this: test and validate edtech solutions to help schools and teachers make the right choices.

One advice then for all edtech lovers: look at the evidence!


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