I participated in my first Escape Room a little while ago at the suggestion of my son and daughter. Our family made the reservation, piled into the car and headed off to an afternoon of problem solving. I was intrigued by the concept of solving a mystery using team work and a series of successive clues to make our way out of a locked room.
Of course when we got there, my son immediately told the clerk that we wanted the most difficult room available. “Nice”, I thought. “I’ll be locked in here for hours! So much for my self-esteem.”
There were 5 of us who squeezed into a room no larger than 10′ x 8′ … and I have to say … it was a ton of fun. Yes, we were stumped occasionally, and when we finally made it out of the room, we found ourselves in another locked room with even more clues to steer us to our eventual escape. We actually needed a bit of help from the Escape Room employee on two occasions, but our shared knowledge and problem-solving skills enabled us to eventually find our way out.
It got me thinking about a related teaching concept — the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) — sometimes also called Scaffolding.
In essence, ZPD is “the difference between what a learner can do without any assistance and what he or she simply cannot do”
The concept of ZPD or scaffolding relates to that spot where a little help makes the learning challenging but doable. An Escape Room uses this concept beautifully. We’re stuck in a room, but with some help from “clues” (prior or current learning), other “participants” in the room (students), and occasionally the “employee” (teacher), we can find our solution and “escape” (increase our knowledge or skills).
Teachers use this same process in the classroom — they scaffold a lesson by putting certain student supports in place which provide assistance. Teachers work to find the right amount of scaffolding to support their students until they can do the learning objective on their own. As our students move forward we gently remove the scaffolds set up until they are able to accomplish the educational goal independently.
Too MUCH support and students don’t need to push themselves and, hence, they don’t really learn to their potential.
Too LITTLE support and students risk getting frustrated and abandoning their learning.
Master teachers have this uncanny ability to find the balance point of ‘just enough support’ in most of their lessons — it’s as much an art as it is a science. These teachers have this almost innate ability to recognize student needs and implement that perfect ‘tension’ in the classroom where students are appropriately challenged. When it works it looks effortless and so easy — yet, it is so difficult to replicate if you don’t have that understanding and sense of how to best support the learning process.
Teachers become these wonderful facilitators of student growth by allowing themselves to have permission to take calculated teaching risks — trying something new in the classroom because of the potential payoff in finding even better student success. And when a teacher sees or senses that ‘sweet spot’ in a lesson it truly is magical — observing that enhanced student engagement, that sparkle in their students’ eyes … THAT is the magic that we continually strive for as teachers.
I openly admit that I sometimes don’t hit the mark when I’m leading a meeting or workshop in my role as Superintendent — and that’s OK. It’s important that people see that I’m trying and learning as a teacher even after all of these years in public education. It’s all part of the learning journey. We try, we reflect, we adjust — repeat. We hope for improvement the next time.
Is my class bored because it’s too easy?
Have my students disengaged because the task is too difficult?
What adjustments do I need to consider to find that perfect scaffolding situation?
I suppose if I was forced to define great teaching — it would be about using one’s skill to find that amazing spot of just enough STUDENT STRUGGLE with just enough TEACHER SUPPORT to make learning come alive.
It’s probably time for me to visit another Escape Room. If you haven’t been to one I suggest giving it a try with a few close friends or family. But, I also suggest perhaps not taking your son’s advice to pick the most difficult room. It may not be the best if you’re looking for a quick escape.