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.
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. One 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.
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.
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.