Thinking About Scaffolding …

I am most interested in how to facilitate student learning.    As a librarian, how that facilitation takes place is not always clear.

Source: http://knowyourmemes.com

Giving an instruction about library service or how to use a research database are obvious ones.  I don’t, however, find them to be something that I do for facilitating student learning.  Rules and regulations change and the design of service infrastructure would directly or indirectly convey where the authority or the establishment lay and to which students need to comply to get what they are expected to accomplish.   Although they used to be more rigid and longer lasting, with the advancement of web technology, the rules are rapidly changing.  Nonetheless, academic libraries situate themselves somewhere between a part of their respective campus community and a part of the wider digital economy.

So What is My Relationship to the Concept of Scaffolding?

I first became very interested in facilitating student learning and the idea of scaffolding student learning as a librarian in the context of one of the foundational courses in Human Ecology.  The course did not communicate to the students not that well about the intention and expectation of the writing paper assignment given in the course.  Although the course was a long-established course, the syllabus of the course had been dutifully carried out one semester to the next for many years.   The writing assignment was well thought out in its design and meant to facilitate students to follow essential steps of writing academic papers.  For example, the first paper assignment was broken down into distinctive steps:  developing a mind mapping, searching library databases, organizing an annotated bibliography, developing an outline and drafting of the paper.   Unfortunately or fortunately, over the years, the course was handed over to sessional instructors to teach, and the pedagogical intention behind the assignment was somehow lost.  As a result, the students did not see each task they were asked to undertake as essential part of writing an academic paper.  They simply saw them just as a 5% exercise for submitting a mind mapping, another 5% for doing an annotated bibliography, and so on.  It was so unfortunate because the intention of guiding students working on an academic paper was in the design, but either the instructor thought it was obvious to students or never thought of adding a few additional efforts to connect students to different steps.

I teamed up with my writing instructor colleague to build a blended learning model around the paper assignment.  We received some campus technology grant and worked in collaboration with the sessional instructor of the course.    The project hypothesis was that if students were more connected to the intention and expectation of the paper assignment and guided with broken-up tasks that constitute the processes of the writing assignment, they would have more appreciation of it as a learning exercise.  We ran it as a pilot project during a summer session, and the class was relatively small.  We interviewed all the students to hear about their learning experience around the paper assignment after the completion of the course.   They all responded positively except one student who was somewhat adamant about the assignment in general.  As such, we concluded that the project was, in general, successful in facilitating student learning.   To contrast the blended learning model with the past practice, we also held focus group sessions with the students who had taken the course during the past four years also confirmed this.  Interestingly, the strong sentiment stood out from the sessions was that students did not quite understand or appreciate the intention behind the assignment.  The sentiment was quite a contrast to the one expressed by the students who were guided by the blended learning model.

In retrospect, the course had an intriguing challenge for students.  In the course, the students were asked to read many articles related to the philosophy and orientation of Human Ecology.  The Faculty was first established as Home Economics and then, later became Human Ecology.  The writing assignment perhaps coincided with this change and thus asked the students to define Human Ecology.   Students were, in essence, asked to align with the new professional outlook or facade that represented three major departments that later evolved into Family Social Sciences, Textile Sciences, and Human Nutritional Sciences.   They were encouraged politically to align their career aspirations with Human Ecology and expressed it in an acceptable academic writing format.  How the students associated themselves with the idea, however, was beyond our blended learning project.

Some Doubt on and Limit of Scaffolding

Borrowed from: https://goo.gl/AJxdsD
Borrowed from: https://goo.gl/AJxdsD

Since the first blended learning project, I have been involved in a variety of courses in different disciplines to scaffold and facilitate student learning.   I also have read about “Constructive Alignment” (Biggs & Tang, 2011) in the process.  It encourages teachers to reflect on and reiterate how better to deliver and develop many of the whistles and bells of “teaching science,” such as articulating intended learning outcomes, teaching/learning activities, assessment tasks, and rubrics for assessment, etc.  The whole enterprise is nicely packaged, and Biggs & Tang argue that the constructive alignment framework would guide teachers with their activities, and it would ensure quality teaching.  There is also an organizational dimension to what they preach.  They encourage the whole universities, colleges and their departments to join in the constructive alignment activities for teaching and they can coordinate accordingly to achieve quality teaching at their institutions.
What Biggs & Tang are saying makes a lot of sense given how the idea of teaching involved over the years in higher education.  When the words such as “learning outcomes,” rubrics, and assessments are used and implied all the time, in reality, however, these are not often communicated to students as something that are relevant and valuable to them.  So what least teachers can do is to convert or translate them to something students appreciate and clear connections to what they receive as their marks.

What is missing from the discussion of the constructive alignment framework is students as learning agents.  It is highly teacher-centric.  Along the same line, Maryellen Weimer is advancing student-centered learning approach for many years.  Perhaps she is at least asking teaching faculty to question what works and what may not work for students.  Once we take students seriously as learning agents,  over-emphasis on teaching and teaching roles would cast doubt on the idea of scaffolding.  There is always a danger of over objectification of learning without addressing students as agents of their own in a variety of manners.