You know we’ve had a nice long run of warm summer weather when you forget to even look at the forecast – and are surprised by thunderstorms and cooler air! With a little taste of Fall in the air, can you spare a few extra minutes for a longer read this morning?
No, we are not building houses today. J If you are not familiar with the term scaffolding in education, here’s a short intro (credit for much of this post to the Alliance for Self-Directed Education and author Je’anna Clements, writing from the perspective of self-directed homeschoolers):
We’re all familiar with scaffolding. Everywhere buildings are constructed or repaired, we see the network of platforms and poles that support the work crew, giving them access to their current work areas. Sometimes artists use scaffolding, too. Michelangelo needed scaffolding to get him to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He would have also needed scaffolding to support him as he climbed around and hacked into the enormous chunk of marble that became the statue of David. The advantage of using scaffolding is that it helps you climb higher than you can currently stand. It gives you support and access to expand on your previous achievements.
This brings us to the concept of ‘scaffolding’ in education. The idea is that a teacher or facilitator provides the learner with clues, cues, models and tools to extend their learning beyond current mastery into what Vygotsky termed the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. In conventional education, scaffolding is used in a way that closely parallels physical scaffolding: exact plans are in place. Scaffolding is created in advance and is carefully pre-designed. The teacher ‘knows’ exactly what the learner is ‘meant’ to achieve and provides standardized scaffolding that actively guides the learner to produce that precise result.
If instead, we take the approach of “follow the child”, we realize that scaffolding needs to have an “outside the box” approach. Je’anna, again:
Conventional scaffolding limits and contains the process to that which can be reached by the pre-designed scaffold. When your whole scaffold is in place, that’s it. That’s where you can go. It is a very literal kind of ‘box’. Even if you don’t follow that exact plan, even if you decide to get creative, once your scaffolding is up, you can only build within the area contained by the scaffolding. Conventional scaffolding restricts what you can build, and how wide it can go.
When we build scaffolding around each learner, one step at a time, it “can become a more complex structure. It can go up, it can go down, and it can go upside-down… Self-evolved scaffolding can go sideways, taking learners into lateral zones of proximal development rather than only along vertical paths.” Note she says, “self-evolved”, which is where the article really got interesting. Because, as she notes, scaffolding doesn’t have to be something that is provided by another. We are all capable of building scaffolding; in fact, we do it all the time. Consider an infant cruising the along the furniture versus scurrying in a walker.
It can be fascinating to watch self-directed learners with scaffolding explicitly in mind. They have so many different ways to get what they need. Often, they use scaffolding in a completely conventional way. Self-directed learners do sign up for courses and classes, read textbooks, and follow recipes, tutorials, and all kinds of readily available instruction… They also use ad-hoc teachers or guides. Self-directed learners ask someone else, who they believe knows the terrain. Again, the difference here is that they choose their scaffolding supplier. Instead of having to rely on a designated teacher, they can go to the source that best fits their need in the moment. Often, a self-directed learner will get a few steps from one guide, then a few steps from another. Freedom of association is a critical resource in a self-education process. (This is also a key part of the value of a rich learning community as opposed to a socially limited learning environment.) In addition to seeking out an external guide and ‘borrowing’ the scaffolding they provide, the intact confidence of self-directed learners means they are able to use inner guidance, too.
Whether the infant cruising or the self-directed teen learning, if the role of the adult is not to build the scaffolding for them, what is it? Two things: relationships, and environment. A close and supportive mentoring relationship gives each teen a trusting adult to ask questions of and hear feedback and even challenges from. And the environment needs to allow access to things that can be used as scaffolding. Imagine the infant learning to walk again – what if there were no furniture in their space, nothing of the right size or shape to utilize to pull up or cruise on? The same with our teens and our high school environment – we must provide what Maria Montessori called the “prepared environment” – ensuring the tools, resources, and access are available, from materials and spaces and technology to access to courses (college and others), connections to community members and organizations from theater troupes to makerspaces… in short all the people, places, and things students can use to build a personalized scaffold from their current capability to the next. And, the process of self-directed learning – of “building your own scaffold” – itself is perhaps the most critical skill our kids will need in the future! Je’anna again:
This kind of organically evolving scaffolding itself displays “out of the box” thinking, but it also facilitates further “out of the box” thought. A highly creative approach to learning strengthens creative muscle, facilitating more creativity. There is no person alive today who can reliably predict what even the most common career options will be in 2050. In 2050, my son will be 45 years old — in the prime of his productive working life. Will he be clearing up space junk? Will he be mining asteroids? Will he grow micro-greens and slug protein three miles up on a skyfarm? Will he be an inter-species translator? Or interface with robotic gear operated by nuances of eye-blink, or conscious modulation of heart-rate variability? Or will the only remaining careers for humans, be in arts and entertainment? If so, what will that look like in 2050? Virtual-reality-dream engineering? Probably, he will be doing something I cannot even fantasize. Possibly, he may need to help invent what it is that he does.
It seems clear to me that the best I can do to help him prepare for that unimaginable future is to support his self-education capacity. Help keep intact his ability to evolve his own learning scaffolds. Flexible, organic, self-evolved learning scaffolds are what our children most need now. A rich environment with plenty of peers and a wide range of approachable adults. An environment of trust and respect, where children learn to honor their bliss and follow their intuition.
Boxes — limited scaffolds that teach our children to follow only safe, known paths — are no longer merely limiting. Given the rapid-change years that our children face ahead, they could be detrimental.
Please see our Facebook page for more learning links. I think this TGIF is already long enough!!
It should be absolutely beautiful for Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Saturday events tomorrow. Locals, enjoy the parade, fun, festivities, and fireworks!