‘He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.’ Friedrich Nietzsche 

We’ve all experienced it. Either as teachers or students. The teacher repeats herself for the third time but still makes no progress with that one student on the second row to the left. At first, she questions her own pedagogical skills, but after the third repetition, she concludes it’s either the student’s attention span or his intelligence that’s the problem. ‘Everyone else gets it, and I can’t spend all my time on this one kid, I have a class to teach’. So, she moves on to the next activity.

But the student still whines ‘Miss!?, I don’t get it.’ He insists. The teacher deflects the comment with a ‘see me after class’. Puzzled by what to do in the mean time, the student finds himself unable to attempt the follow up activity. And soon, he stops asking math related questions altogether; because well- what’s the point? She doesn’t care about mylearning- he decides. ‘Also, I’m just not good at math’ he tells himself. So, instead of paying attention, he day dreams and forgets to show up after class. And the teacher has too much on her hands, so she doesn’t follow up.

In this scenario, the student and the teacher no longer work together to bolster learning, instead, the relationship turns negative- even adversarial. The student refuses to pay attention, and the teacher ignores the learners needs.

And I can relate to both these characters well because at different times in my life, I’ve been that student and I’ve been that teacher. 

Despite being a victim of this system, I found it surprisingly easy to become a perpetrator of the status quo. Like myself, many educators walk into the profession trying to make a difference, but when things get tough that optimism dies quickly. The easy option is to become a pessimist, but that drifts us from our vision and we risk losing our sense of purpose. The more viable option requires work: to arm ourselves with more ways to teach students.

While there is no single method or answer to help the student described above grasp the concept he struggles with, let’s explore scaffolding as a solution to this problem.


Scaffolding requires three steps to succeed.

1.    Modelling (I do): The teacher demonstrates the steps required to tackle a particular question or problem.

2.    Guided practice (We do): The instructor and students tackle problems or questions together.

3.     Independent practice (You do): The student is able to tackle the question without any help.

Modelling (I do)

Good teachers demonstrate their thinking process. As experts who routinely engage with content that students are unfamiliar with, teachers can forget to model how they first came to learn a new concept. For example, many of us are capable of writing an essay, but how many of us remember all the concepts of grammar that were taught to us overtime? Adjectives, verbs, nouns, past participle, simple participle are all concepts that now live in our subconscious that we may not consciously be able to explain.

Learning challenging words through association is an example of modelling how new vocabulary is acquired. In biology we come across words with a common root. The word exfoliates: to shed skin, or expel: to remove, both have a common root word ex: associated with external. I remember making this connection on my own, but teachers of science can refer to root words to help students remember the endless number of words they are exposed to.

Teachers can also come up with acronyms to help students remember challenging concepts. BODMAS is an acronym created centuries ago and is fine example that is easily remembered. If students are exposed to enough acronyms, eventually they will start coming with their own acronyms to learn concepts.

Guided Practice (We do)

Guided practice encourages students to risk making mistakes when learning. The fear of being judged by teachers or classmates is reduced by guided practice as the teacher promises to assist the student if he faces any learning challenges. Students are encouraged to push their learning further by taking an assisted leap to learn more than they would have on their own.

In the recent past, I taught a close friend to float. My friend was hesitant to attempt to floating on his own. It’s not an easy thing to learn. During this time, I had to ensure him that if he would fall into the pool, I would catch him. I fulfilled this promise many times before he was able to float on his own. And this is exactly what guided practice is about: giving students the confidence to take a leap of faith in a safe environment.

An example of guided practice in a math class would look like:

Scenario: A first-grade math student is struggling to multiply 6 by 3

Step 1: Teacher models how she multiplied 6 by 2 to get 12

Step 2: Teacher can ask student what happens if we add 6 and 12.

Step 3: Teacher can count with the student till the answer is reached (12 + 1: 13, 12 + 2:14… this is carried on the correct answer (18) is reached)

Step 4: Student reaches the correct answer, and the teacher affirms the student ability to answer this question using the same method in the future.

Guided practice serves to bolster student confidence and to remind students that they are able to do more than they think they can.

Independent practice (You do)

Independent practice is possible when the student is able to respond to a question without any help. In the scenario above, when the student is able to comfortably multiply 6 by 3 without teacher guidance, he has reached the stage of independent practice. This ensures that the concept/skill has been acquired and that the teacher can move on to teaching new ideas/concepts.

Teachers can use the I do, we do, and you do model to diagnose the stage of student learning. If the student is unable to tackle a concept independently, the teacher can move back to the guided practice stage. Similarly, if the student is unable to satisfy the questions asked by the teacher at the guided practice stage, the teacher can model the concept for the student. The cycle can be repeated as many times as necessary to help the student learn.

Good learning occurs when good relationships exist between teachers and students. Students feel encouraged to ask ‘silly questions’ in such classrooms. Conversely, a bad relationship demoralizes the student and prevents organic learning from taking place. So, the next time that one student in the back raises his hand up for the fourth time in two minutes, it’s time to pull out the only strategy that helps – patience.

This article was originally published here and has been taken with permission from the writer.

Hussnain Shah
Academic Head
Little Medical School