Learning Towers

A stool with scaffolding shown next to a kitchen counter top of the same height

This past weekend I built a learning tower for my sons.  The basic principle is that the little ones (toddlers) would like to be able to participate in what the big ones (adults) are doing in places like the kitchen.  I followed a DIY project to build one using a hand saw and a power drill with little experience using either. This meant that It took some time to complete.  Time to reflect on the role of scaffolding in learning.


The cheese stands alone by Dota 2 TI4 http://www.flickr.com Creative Commons Licence: CC BY 2.0 Generic https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As an adult I can tell that I have a sense of independence. I am aware of how much I rely on the support of those around me which in turn drives me to seek further independence.  This may be most succinctly described by my sister when we were small children.  She told me that I was the cheese because the cheese stands alone.  We joke about this observation she made, but I think we find this comment so funny because there is a component of truth to it. I never understood why someone would want to be spoon fed anything until I had to literally spoon feed my own children.  It was in those moments when I realized how important it is to provide support.  At times we are all bound to be helpless, hungry, and unable to feed ourselves.

I would categorize myself as rebelling against supportive environments because they feel over supportive making it difficult for me to understand my own actions.  I can think of an example with my kids that exemplifies this problem.  When they were doing tummy time we would cushion them and tried to support their endurance to stay on the floor for a longer period of time by putting them on a blanket over a foam mat.  blanket-224367_1920One day I realized that their struggle against the blanket prevented them from getting traction.  When I removed the blanket they started to make subtle progress towards crawling.  When the blanket was there it looked more like swimming in place.  When I find myself in a supportive environment I often experience it like the child swimming on the blanket when I am trying to learn to crawl.  There was effectively a failure to align the support – the blanket – with the learning goal.  To be clear I am defining the learning goal by the direction the student wants to take not the direction the designer has envisioned for the environment. The blanket support was designed with a goal of the time on the mat, but the self-directed learning goal for my kids at the time was movement.

So as I was sawing boards and building this learning tower I wondered how might this tower help and/or hinder the learning for my children.  As they can communicate a little more I get a better sense of their learning goals.  They do not have a broad vocabulary so we rely on pointing and facial expressions right now.  Recently they have been pointing at the stove and sink when I am either washing the dishes or cooking.  They want me to lift them up so they can see what I am doing and it is not entirely convenient to hold two infants while either cooking or cleaning.  I think they are wanting to observe my activity and the natural environment is in conflict with the learning goal.  Effectively kitchens are not designed for the natural variability of people that live in the house.  In fact, I am pretty sure I would not want my kids to have easy access to the gas stove.

Flying buttresses of the Freiburg Minster By Lutz H (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
This gave me further insight into the role of scaffolding both in terms of support and in terms of constraint. Perhaps much like a flying buttress supports a wall to reach new heights and at the same time constrains lateral forces.  While the learning tower provides a view into the kitchen and potential access to the first foot of countertop there is still a limited effect in that the toddler cannot fully participate in kitchen activities.  For example, I can still keep the cleaning supplies on a shelf that is out of reach even when using the tower.  The tower has removed the irrelevant barrier of height for the purposes of observation and provided a constrained form of participation.  The question becomes does the constraint conflict with the learning goal.  At this stage the boys seem satisfied with observation.  They seem to just want to know what it is I do on the kitchen counter.  Their inability to fully utilize what is up there is not a point of contention at least in so far as I can interpret their pointing and emotional response to our interactions.

While the blanket and tower are two examples that illustrate a physical learning goal I believe they can serve as a model when thinking about the support and constraint that scaffolding can have in learning environments. They illustrate that alignment is critical.  It makes me think of the scaffolding involved in a boat launch.  How there are many supports in getting a boat into the water and once you have made it into the water then the boating adventure can begin.

Boat launch at Occoneechee State Park By Virginia State Parks staff [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It is with mental models of this nature that I can tackle more complex topics such as the interaction between emotion and cognition and what strategies can support learners to use their emotion data for the purposes of self-regulated learning. These physical constructions are static in nature and when it comes to digital environments we can explore dynamic supports. This will be key when it comes to emotions as they are episodic in nature.  It can still be useful to have some examples and counter examples of what dynamic systems need to orchestrate for a given goal.

To hear about how I see this connection coming together look to my future journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations.

Bath Time

Play has been an integral part of my life.  From playing games to just goofing off I have found that play is important and I have put some intentional effort into making sure play is a component of my life as an adult.  I find it interesting that as adult it takes effort.  When I look to my children it seems to be very natural.

025: Go Ducks! by Denise Mattox [CC BY ND 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/], via http://www.flickr.com
As a new father I am still fascinated at how much enjoyment my sons get from everyday activities.  Last night was the first time one of my sons walked into the bathroom and pointed at the tub and looked up at me with an expectant face.  He wanted to play in the water.  He needed some bath time.  He really wanted to splash.  It took a few minutes and he was 100% engaged in play and laughter ensued.

In comparison, after moving to the UK and transitioning into student life again I wanted to take advantage of my new surroundings and my wife pointed at the town of Bath and said it would be an excellent Christmas Market to explore this holiday season.  We rented a car.

Rental Car in the UK By Garron Hillaire

I practiced driving in the UK for one day.  The next day we loaded the car up with two kids, two car seats, two Pak’N’Plays, a double stroller, a diaper bag, & a suitcase.  Once the car was loaded we drove for 3 hours to get to Bath.

After checking in to the hotel we had roughly 4 hours in the market on the evening that we arrived and another 2 hours in the market the next morning.  It was a lot of time, energy, and effort so that we could have a few hours of play.  It is fascinating to me that my boys could point at something so ordinary as a bath and in a few moments be in rolling laughter while as an adult it takes planning to organize an event of play.

Bath Christmas Market By Garron Hillaire


Roman Baths By Garron Hillaire

While the effort was high the value for me was tremendous.  When I get a chance to play it feels like a chance to reset my sense of balance.  I spent the first few weeks of my PhD program in a heads down effort. I have read, submitted an application to a doctoral consortium, read, proposed a book chapter, read, contributed to a symposium proposal for a conference, read, and volunteered to do a book review.  The six hours of play I had over two days provided such a relief from the pressure I put on myself in my program.

It is interesting to me that my boys can play by using a bath and I choose to play by looking at a bath that was used so many years ago.


My family and I have recently moved to Milton Keynes in the UK from Boston MA in the States.  I have made such dramatic moves in the past as a child in middle school when my mother decided to move from Seattle, WA to Maui, HI.  I have made the decision on my own to move from Maui, HI back to Seattle, WA.  I maintained a distance relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) when she moved to Connecticut. My wife and I made the decision to move from Seattle, WA to Boston, MA.  Most recently it was a family decision with my wife and our two kids to move to Milton Keynes, in the UK from Boston.

me9yeh_sjs5It is not surprising for me to find that one of the Latin roots for Emotion is Movere which means “to move”.  Today I find myself simultaneously researching the role that emotions play in learning while learning in a very emotional landscape.  In looking back I think that it is common for dramatic emotional landscapes to contribute to my learning.


Upcountry Maui looking west toward West Maui and Lanai By Daniel Kane (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-a/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
On Maui during my senior year in high school most students had a free period for the purposes of studying.  For me, I was kindly asked to spend my free time in the headmasters office so that he could see me working.  Beyond spending my free period in the headmasters office, the common punishment for students was to go to school on Saturday for work duty. A student could make amends for their behavior by doing some form of campus maintenance.  It was common for me to spend my Saturdays on campus doing tasks such as raking leaves or washing vans.  In fact, I even recall one occasion where I showed up for work duty when I had surprisingly done nothing wrong that week.  I had grown so used to this schedule that I just assumed that I should make amends for something.

Steven Pavlov [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
 When moving to Seattle it was to gain focus and career in the form of software development at a small start-up company.  It was in this time that I had to genuinely self-regulate my own learning.  I spent the summer in the basement of my grandparents house in preparation for this change. I would commonly work through the night into the early morning  learning the basics of computer programming.  The next morning I would walk to Alki and make coffee all day and return to the computer at night.  Drinking coffee and computer programming has always gone hand in hand.

After programming for a few years my girlfriend moved to Connecticut to start a masters program.  I could see again that I would have to move forward.  I began to catch up to her education level by spending 6 years completing a 4 year degree.  She had reluctantly moved back to Seattle after her masters program and as soon as I completed my undergraduate degree we began to plan a move together.  This led us to Boston MA.

Longfellow Hall By John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In Boston I felt activated.  The pace of life in that city was more aggressive than either Seattle or Maui and I can best describe my time there as demanding.  I did a 9 month masters program which was at times frantic.  During that time I found myself in an emotionally driven argument with one of my teachers in the course discussion board.  I could see my high school self in this argument and cherished that younger brasher me.  While my argument lacked cohesion and felt immature there was a genuine component to it in my emotions.  This led to working for this teacher for the next 4 years at CAST  researching Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  In fact, this argument may be a building block in my research question about the trace of student emotions in online discussion data.

Jennie Lee Building at The Open University By Garron Hillaire

It was time to focus my learning again and this time the move was out of the United States and over to the UK.  If you have ever moved a family you would know that this activates your emotional landscape.  Your sense of self comes into a reflective space as you experience the change from the perspectives of your whole family.  At a time where I must achieve the pinnacle of my formal education I am surrounded by a complex landscape of emotions that is hard to describe adequately with words.  Somehow this is familiar territory for me and I am perhaps best prepared to succeed in this type of environment.  It is exciting to be a part of the Open World Learning research project.  I am even more pleased that I will be researching self-regulation using emotion and cognition analytics.