On Using Crutches

Been having a lot of discussions with coworkers (as dictated by the admin) and friends (as comes up in natural discussion) about working with our struggling and special education students. My school’s scores have been on the rise on most testing measures. However, the numbers have remained stagnant for our many of our weakest or most struggling students. My admin is posing a focus question, asking what can teachers do to help these students grow and succeed. My coworkers (who are admirably hard-working and enthusiastic) have valiantly taken up the charge and have been sharing best practices around topics like scaffolding, co-teaching/pull-out, chunking, differentiated grading, etc. However, I’m concerned about this approach being too teacher-centered (perhaps a result of the teacher evaluation) instead of being more student-centered. Let’s not just ask teachers what more they should be doing to make class easier/better for the most struggling students (not that that isn’t a good thing to ask). Let’s get students to grow independent of teachers, to be aware of their struggles and seek out the appropriate help they need.

I keep coming back to what someone brought up as the analogy of the crutch. Suppose you break your leg. You know it hurts and you can’t walk. You see a doctor. He gives you a crutch and a timeline for getting back on two feet. If needed, there are even physical therapists who can work with you to help you build up the strength to walk on your own. The end goal is that you can proceed without crutches at some point in the near future.

What I’m afraid of is that instead of offering crutches, some teachers are building ramps everywhere. The entrances are now easier for everyone (no more stairs! yay!), but the stairs are completely covered over. No one is learning or developing skills for climbing stairs, and if those stairs appear in the future (on a state exam, in a college class) the students are not prepared. We have made life too easy for students. (I think a lot of this mentality comes from the teacher evaluations being focused on the teaching part of the classroom and not on the learning. Students are not being considered as part of the equation on how well a lesson goes.)

Going back to the crutch analogy, I see a few key features:

  1. The Need. Students have to be aware that they need crutches/that there is a problem and they are not capable of moving forward. I have heard so many of my favorite teachers talk about the importance of failing. I think it is important to have moments where students see their struggles/see what they can not yet do…but done in a supportive/nurturing way, with someone who can help them set goals for overcoming the obstacles.
  2. The Discussion. Students have to be told they are getting crutches/scaffolding with some introduction or discussion. I find some teachers make scaffolded worksheets for their struggling students without telling students that there are different versions. I fear that some students don’t even realize that they are dealing with anything different, and never set goals to become more independent. If students don’t know they are using crutches, will they ever aim to walk without them?
  3. The Goals. Doctors tell patients the number of weeks they will be on crutches. Why don’t teachers set a timeline for struggling students? I don’t want to rush our students or cause them anxiety, but I want to work with them to set reasonable timelines for becoming more independent.
  4. The Removal. At some point the crutches have to be taken away. A student has to keep working at it, and there are specialists (like physical therapists) who can offer extra support. However, the student has to let go of the crutches in order to move forward, in order to become the most successful version of him/herself.

2 thoughts on “On Using Crutches

  1. Emily H. October 25, 2014 / 7:10 pm

    I think the crutch analogy is great and applicable to a wide range of students. I certainly don’t want to make life too easy for my AP Calculus students! At the same time, I co-teach 9th graders with a special education teacher, and I don’t think the crutch analogy applies to all of our students.

    For many students with special instructional needs, I think the analogy of the prosthetic leg would be more accurate. A prosthetic leg certainly allows a student to keep up with his/her peers more easily than a wheelchair or crutches, but a prosthesis can still be uncomfortable and tiring. At first, the student may need a lot of help, support, and the occasional ramp. With a lot of time and practice, the student might be indistinguishable from his or her classmates, and you might not even know the student has a prosthetic leg. I don’t think the goal should be for the student to walk without the prosthesis — I think the goal has been met.

    Thanks for the though-provoking post!

  2. gasstationwithoutpumps October 26, 2014 / 12:57 am

    As a college professor, I see a lot of students who have never had the scaffolding removed, and are incapable of doing anything academic unless someone else has already done the hard part for them. It is crucial to build the descaffolding into the planning. (Note: college professors are as bad at removing scaffolding as earlier teachers—everyone wants to see their students succeed, and so they provide more and more help until “success” occurs, even though the teacher has done all the work.)


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