"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Taking down the scaffolding
For those not acquainted with the jargon, and to grotesquely simplify it, scaffolding is supporting student learning by posing a problem, then guiding and coaching the student through the task, often relying on the students' prior knowledge.
The idea behind the metaphor is that one erects scaffolding to provide support to the workers who are constructing a building, and eventually the job is completed and the scaffolding comes down. Thus, eventually the student achieves mastery and is able to perform problem-solving independently.
But I don't like the metaphor anymore and I think it leads down some cul-de-sacs. Because I worked in Manhattan for 20 years and there's one thing a Manhattanite knows -- Scaffolding Never Comes Down. That piece of sidewalk will never see the sun again. Those contractors will figure out a way to keep the job going and going and going. And your students will figure out ways to keep you from dismantling your scaffolding and maintain their dependence on you.
Second, scaffolding is not generally used in construction. It's for renovation. New buildings use cranes and elevators, not scaffolds. Hopefully we are not renovating knowledge, we are building it afresh.
And third, we really aren't building knowledge. Most of the time, we are exploring knowledge that already exists. True, the student hasn't seen it before, but it is already there. We are not creating anything.
We are laying down a path through this forest of knowledge. We are mapping it out. We are exploring. Even when there are skills involved, those skills are not ends in themselves, but means toward acquiring knowledge. To take my own discipline, one doesn't learn to write literary analysis in order to write literary analysis. That is not a very valuable product. It exists almost exclusively within the tight borders of academia. One writes analysis in order to explain TO YOURSELF what you just read. You may also be demonstrating your mastery to your instructor, but that is merely a by-product. The chief end is to set out the metes and bounds of one's own understanding of the reading.
We are not a construction crew -- we are explorers, hoping that the young explorers we train will go deeper into the woods and come back and tell us of the treasures they found there. It is pure arrogance to think we are making something from nothing. In fact, unless our students are creating genuinely new literature, conducting new research, fabricating new inventions, they are not building, they are mapping the terrain. We take them through the part of the forest we know, then we let them go. Some move beyond us, others wander back to home base.
So from now on, although I will use the jargon as required by professional courtesy, in my mind I will know that I am not a foreman, but a surveyor, training others mostly to be surveyors and a few special ones to go beyond our maps, out into the darkness, out toward the edges, out where there be dragons.