Start Small, Simple and Easy.

amazing scaffold
Seven Ways To Scaffold Authentic Learning

Let’s say you want to learn to play the piano.

(That's called "authentic learning": a real thing that a normal person can recognize, rather than a pencil-and-paper test about an abstract concept or heap of facts.)

What’s more: you want to play a Beethoven piano sonata.

So how do you go about achieving something

complex, and

Practically-speaking, you should likely start with something

simple, and

Maybe start with a folk tune or a two-part invention.

Heck, even just plunk out a single melody.

In the theory and practice of learning, there are many names for this.

  • One is “curriculum design” or "curriculum theory": the way you sequence tasks and goals to make them achievable.
  • There’s another concept called “self-efficacy”: this means that if you think you’ll be able to do something, you’re more likely to be able to. It sounds like ‘the power of positive thinking,’ but it’s actually well researched. So if you can prove to yourself “yes, I can do this,” even in a small way, that can build your sense of self-efficacy.
  • Maybe most on-target is the notion of scaffolding. Scaffolding mean: the structure around the learner that helps her to reach the goal. Briefly: instead of jumping upward ten feet, break that leap into ten one-foot steps.

(In a sense, it doesn't matter why starting small, simple and easy is a good idea--any more than it matters why too much salt makes things taste bad: it's just something you need to deal with.)

Sadly, much of the discussion of scaffolding is mired in very paternalistic forms of instruction: the teacher scaffolds by explaining, demonstrating, coaching. Okay.

  • But the center of the process should be the learner, not the teacher.
  • And the conceptual basis of scaffolding in this sense has to do with psychological and cognitive development: it’s not appropriate for adults--or really even teens.
  • Finally, what many people called "scaffolding" sounds more like methods of instruction--tell them, show them, help them, etc. Nevertheless, the general term is probably good enough for us.

“Start from small, simple and easy and work to big, complex and hard” is a kind of scaffolding. It’s very common in practical arts like cooking or sewing, games and art forms that amateurs enjoy--like playing the guitar or the piano. (I discussed that here.) And so as we teach or plan learning (even our own), practical arts and games can guide us: they give us clear images of ways to make something more learnable.

Cooking provides excellent examples. The boss is coming to dinner, and you need to make a four-course meal with a gourmet dessert. (I know: it’s not the 1950’s, but go along with me for a minute.)

Let's say you can handle the first three courses. It's the dessert you want to focus on: you figure if that wows them, any earlier sins will be forgiven.

Let's say you settle on Tiramisu. You know: it's that lovely Italian dessert consisting of little cake-y cookies soaked in coffee, syrup, maybe liqueur, and layered with some kind of creamy eggy mixture. It's a big, complex task. How should you proceed?How can you break it down into a series of smaller tasks that will build your skills and give you confidence?

  • You could start by tasting a lot of tiramisu.
  • You could work separately on the cake, the icing, the syrup.
  • You could practice making the dish for two instead of eight.
  • You could make a simpler version without the syrup.
  • You could substitute some easier ingredients--like a cake that’s simpler, maybe a quickbread. Or you could just throw the elements into a bowl (like strawberry shortbread) instead of layering it carefully.
  • You could make a few using storebought ingredients.
  • You could just work on the flavors by mixing liqueurs in a cocktail, trying to get just the right balance of coffee and cake and chocolate and rum (if you even like that).

What I’m thinking here is: making one whole thing that’s big, complex and difficult is often also assumed to be:

  • 100% original and embedded in a specific discipline--like cooking vs. mixology.
  • And the “making” part is the opposite of: using, analyzing, criticizing.

Taken together, this gives us a neat-enough distinction amongst seven dimensions or axes along which difficulty can be scaled.(The "big, complex, difficult" elements I've already flagged are shown in silver, so you can see clearly the other dimensions I'm pointing out.)

  earlier: preparation later: goal
1. analysis vs. synthesis make & take apart
aka “cross-training”
2. wholeness whole or part
aka 'component' skills
3. scale/scope smaller bigger
4. complexity,
number of dimensions
simpler more complex
5. difficulty easier harder
6. originality partly pre-made more original
7. disciplinarity/domain non-discipline-specific
or from another domain
within the target domain

Training for sports and practicing various games all have ways of doing these things.

  • Athletes watch films of their games and their opponents.
  • In tennis, we might practice just the service or just the backhand.
  • Young people playing baseball sometimes just use the infield.
  • One-on-one basketball is a smaller version of the full-team, full-court version.
  • Whiffleball and T-ball are ‘scaffolded’ versions of baseball: they focus on making the hitting part easier.
  • Chess players can start playing an historical game, to see how they can handle that situation. (It’s not their own game played from the get-go.)
  • Athletes sometimes do strength or endurance training that’s completely separate from the specific skills of their game.

Whether this is doing curriculum design, promoting self-efficacy or scaffolding hardly matters. What matters is: the arts of teaching and learning are very practical affairs. And any desired behavior or goal can be made more do-able by using these seven axes.

--Edward R. O’Neill

P.S. One thing I've done here is to break learning out of the disciplines which claim to study it--instructional design, psychology, etc.--by comparing the planning and implementation of learning to other domains where the practical organization seems more obvious.

The idea is: to make methods of planning learning 'portable' or transferrable from one domain to another. Whatever theories we apply or whatever psychological or social processes underly them, teaching and learning are still practical activities: you need to unlock the classroom door before you can go in and learn. Hence, learning is susceptible to the kinds of common sense planning we do everyday.

In a sense, the common sense of practice is not conceptual enough to be discussed 'seriously' in most of the fields that claim to study learning. But if you want to help people learn, a little common sense sure helps.


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