The notion of scaffolding is often attributed to Lev Vygotsky, though he in fact never used the term. Vygotsky talked about the “zone of proximal development”, or

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes, p. 86).

Loosely interpreted, this means that a certain distance exists between what a learner knows and is capable of and what she needs to know and to be capable of. That distance is crossed using a bridge, or a scaffold, which can transport the learner from one level of learning to another. Once the learner crosses the zone of proximal development, the scaffolding can be removed and she can go on her merry way. At least until she needs to cross another chasm in her understanding.

What are the underlying assumptions in this way of thinking? Is learning equivalent to spanning the distance between what is known and what is not known? Who determines what is known and what needs to be known? Can we assume that scaffolding can be built to fit all (or even most) students?

What if learning is not safe? What if to learn is to take a risk, to become an aerialist, to put your head in the lion’s mouth? Learning is a death-defying act. And though it takes place largely within the confines of silent classrooms and learning management systems, within the mind of the learner, riots can occur.

Take, for instance, Frederick Douglass:

As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened by eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile  to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!

Maybe it’s unfair to bring so profound a thinker as Douglass to bear on a conversation about instructional design. Or perhaps it’s exactly the maneuver we require to remind ourselves that learning is the single most important act in human life; and to work with it through conversations about objectives and outcomes and alignment is to do it a disservice.

How could we scaffold the learning Frederick Douglass did? What objectives would we set before him? What outcomes would we expect?

By the end of this course, you will:

  • Give tongue to interesting thoughts of your own soul;
  • Gain from dialogue the power of truth;
  • Abhor and detest your enslavers;
  • Understand how the silver trump of freedom rouses the soul

Community as Scaffold

Vygotsky also theorizes that community is vital to the learning process. As Saul McLeod summarizes:

Lev Vygotsky views interaction with peers as an effective way of developing skills and strategies. He suggests that teachers use cooperative learning exercises where less competent children develop with help from more skillful peers—within the zone of proximal development.”

Along these lines, Pete Rorabaugh offers:

Consider four core values for the classroom in general and the online classroom: show upbe curious, collaborate, and contribute. The online classroom is more student-directed in the sense that students are more “on their own” than they are in a traditional classroom …Students in the digital environment, whether in a hybrid or fully online classroom, carry more responsibility for their own progress. To succeed, they have to monitor their own progress more directly, engage with the insights of their peers, and ponder the external relevance of their work.

What then, is being scaffolded in an online course? Is scaffolding less the building of a safe bridge of content between Learning Point A and Learning Point B, and more the provision of a learning environment where community can flourish?

There are many instances where digital communities work with each other toward understanding, and where joining such a community is to enter into a kind of apprenticeship to the community’s master artisans. In the wild, wild Web, we can think of these communities as what Kris Gutierrez calls “third spaces.” As Bonnie Stewart explains that according to Gutierrez:

“The third space is explicitly an educational construct of sociocultural learning environments marked by what Gutierrez frames as “distinctive participation structures and power relations.” In Gutierrez’ model, the Third Space is the place where “teacher and student scripts – the formal and informal, the official and unofficial spaces of the learning environment – intersect, creating the potential for authentic interaction and a shift in the social organization of learning and what counts as knowledge.”

These are not specifically classroom spaces, not LMSs, and not usually instructionally designed spaces. Rather, they are examples of the ways that communities scaffold learning and understanding for each other, and where the role of teacher and learner are fluid ones, acting upon each other with Zen-like fascination.

Learning Objectives Assessment

A Problem to Solve