Playing with Teaching Words, Part 2: Scaffold & Learning Outcomes

7 Jul

Re-Introducing the Topic

Why play with teaching words?  This question informs three summer posts reflecting on learning and teaching words common to theorising about course design & delivery, and commonly embedded in our conversations about teaching & learners. In that first “banning (my own) words” post, I acknowledged removing Homework and Bucket List from my written and spoken teaching vocabulary.  Rather than fight with connotations attached to homework – busy work, proof of having read the textbook, something for the teacher – I’ve opted to use the phrase preparing for class assignments to signal that the outside-of-class learning work will be core to class session learning work.  Similarly, I now encourage students to move those “for use in the future” exciting ideas into virtually- or memory-based playlists that can be at hand “any ordinary day” rather than dumped the mix of a catch-all “bucket list.”

Today’s Two Phrasings

Why let loose of the benign scaffolding in talking about course and assignment design to support and sustain student learning? Why move from the separate – and hierarchized – listing of Student Learning Outcomes divided from Student Development Outcomes toward the simple complexity that comes in reporting “Student Learning Outcomes” as a single core document encompassing both cognitive and affective dimensions of learning? As construction technologies change, I don’t see all that much evidence of scaffolding these days. I see instead more hoists, elevated boxes, cranes or lifts outside of buildings, and numerous buildings wrapped with materials that control temperature and build activities behind temporary “walls.”  With fewer opportunities to point to – or photograph – construction scaffolding in this local context, and with already a number of students – and teaching peers – coming from contexts absent of that thing we call scaffolding, the analogy loses connotative power.  In shifting to other “building related” analogies when working with consultees and “Teaching in Higher Education” students, I’ve watched a growing ease in course design that attends to sequencing and staging learning, as well as to supporting and sustaining assignment related learning.  As we know more about learning, the artificial distinction between learning and development outcomes stands as yet another way of holding “real world” learning or “hard” skills as separate from – and more important than – “interpersonal” matters or “soft” skills.  Learning bridges emotion and intellect, it works to test and create ideas, it requires personal concentration and interpersonal communication.  As I’ve moved to offering “Teaching in Higher Education” students and teaching consultees a single document that our institution’s undergraduate benchmark learning and development outcomes under a “Learning Outcomes” title, I find less resistance to incorporating the affective, or developmental, dimensions of learning into course design.

On Scaffolding

In talking with peers and students, I find myself describing ways to sequence assignments or to stage a mix of assessments, and offering ideas about developing feedback practices that support learning and about pointing to human, print and virtual resources that will help students sustain learning in and beyond the course. It’s not that I’m abandoning the construction-related scaffolding analogy.  Rather it’s a matter of thinking through a more DIY – do it yourself – analogy related to home remodelling that’s helped me – and the teachers I worked with this last year – think about a fuller range of design components: sequencingsupporting, and sustaining learning. Coming to see scaffolds as temporary things brought in for a specified period of time, provided by an external company on payment from the construction manager or management company, present only for a bit of time, then taken away and put in storage some place away from the building site – this has closed down its usefulness to me as an analogy for describing how and when and why to plan or support learning during class, in assignment, and through assessments. Essentially, scaffolds aren’t meant to become an integral part of what’s being built, and they’re certainly not around to be available to  new building residents when they come to reside in or begin work lives in those buildings.  Additionally, as essential tools they are, more often than not, owned by someone external to the building designers to be brought in on contract rather than housed locally for a next use. For a more nimble analogy, I’ve been thinking more of my own basement – or of theatre storage areas for props and sets, or of a cook’s pantry, or a lab manager’s stock room – to describe the work of staging and supporting assignments, of sequencing and sustaining learning. The basement storage room is where I keep the more substantial devices – ladders, saw horses, task-specific devices – I bring out when I want to carry out a plan I have developed for painting ceilings, or wallpaper portions of common rooms, or putting in new plumbing.   With the sequence of actions mapped out and appropriate supporting materials selected and lined up, I can begin to assemble the multiple resources and discrete-use tools I will need to have at hand to sustain the project as it moves into fine tuning and finishing up.  I consider whether I need others to help me in carrying out the plan.  Finalising the sequencing of the work requires I extend my thinking, planning and supports beyond a “wrapping up ” phase when the immediate work is finished. For aspects of the design that will require attention “some day,” I seek out known resources (my local hardware store and friends doing similar work, for example) to determine the new supplies I will need to bring into my storage space for future touching up, repairing, updating. It’s not a scaffold I need to bring in to surround the work at hand – in my teaching, in students’ learning, in our work together.  Rather, I need to have in mind the entire construction process – all that it will take to build something that will or may be used by others during and beyond a given time. In mapping out a plan, drawing in local supports/readily available tools, sequencing the work plan while thinking about those working beside, and looking beyond the immediate moment to plan for sustaining what we have designed, built, created – this  is all that’s involved in building courses and environments for learning and teaching.  And that, all unfurled, involves much more than a single scaffold can accommodate.

On (Cognitive and Affective) Learning Outcomes

I teach at a university that only recently began publishing its Student Learning Outcomes and Student Development Outcomes together on the same webpage housed under the Provost’s office.  These two sets of outcomes were, not surprisingly, developed by separate committees, one working on an Academic Affairs charge, the other on a Student Affairs charge.  For years the twain did not meet in virtual space – and often not in teaching workshop space. Given that learning does, as I noted in the opening, bridge emotion and intellect, test and create ideas, require personal concentration and interpersonal communication, the separating of cognitive from affective learning skills and outcomes seemed as false a construction to me as the long standing hierarchical separating of soft and hard skills, soft and hard sciences, soft and hard disciplines.  Rather than these inapt dichotomies that invite “yes, but” bickerings, I join my peers and students in seeing a world that requires “yes, and” framings that bring together interpersonal and discipline-specific skills, intra-professional relationships and knowledge bases suitable to grand challenges, and interdisciplinary framings to tackle complex, novel, ever-shifting problems. In shifting from adolescent to young adult and adult learning, students do need to engage learning outcomes connected to – and connecting together – cognitive and affective domains.  In shifting language, I find three things happening: (1) students more readily link course activities, assignments and assessments to learning outcomes, which shifts how they see/value the work they’ve been asked to engage; (2) I more readily see ways students are develop as learners, which helps me develop feedback and activity loops for the students in front of me; and (3) the outcomes are all out there in the open, which means the developmental ones linked to communication and interpersonal engagement and navigating a complex world don’t exist in a hidden curriculum that can spark unneeded tensions.

Looking Toward Part 3

The closing post will consider what may be gained in a semantic shift from Active Learning to the simple complexity of Learning.


One Response to “Playing with Teaching Words, Part 2: Scaffold & Learning Outcomes”


  1. On Banning (My Own Frequently Used) Words, Part 1 | TILT - 8 July 2014

    […] Part 2 – On Scaffolding and Outcomes: […]

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