Scaffolding and support for collaborative learning

June 4, 2011, [MD]

This week in CSCL-intro, we read Puntambekar & Hubscher's Scaffolding in complex learning environments: What we have gained and what we have missed. We were also supposed to read an article by Slotta, but that link seems to have gone broken. The Puntambekar paper was a great read though, and a very nice introduction to the idea of scaffolding.

Historical background

I have frequently heard the words scaffolding in connection with Knowledge Forum, and had some understanding of its current use, but did not know about its history, or about some of the critiques of its current use. Apparently "scaffolding" was first used about the interaction between parent-child or teacher-student, related to Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (I had heard about ZPD, but never connected it with scaffolds).

At this point, scaffolds had several important features that seemed to get lost in the move to group learning and automated scaffolding:

Both scaffolds (for construction) and support structures under arches are proposed as metaphors in the article, but I wonder if support-wheels for children learning to bike aren't more appropriate - they let you do something you wouldn't be able to do otherwise, and practice other skills, but it's a great day when you can take them off and go much faster.

Scaffolds in group learning

CSCL is all about group learning, not the individual teacher-student relationships (although much good can be said about that as well). In larger groups, it becomes much harder to make the scaffold adapted to each child, although some ways are suggested - one is to give the individual learners more control over when to remove the scaffold (for example by a button saying "Don't remind me about this anymore"), and something called "learner models" are also mentioned. I read a few articles about this - the idea is that given your interactions with the computer, the computer develops an internal model of what you know, or what your skills are, and is able to adapt the learning environment based on this.

However, this latter is usually found in the literature on intelligent tutors, which are not constructivist at all - something like Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative, for example. I've always wondered if it were possible to have learner models in a constructivist collaborative setting.

I also wonder to what extent scaffolding and zone of proximal development presumes an "encyclopedic" perspective on knowledge - given that the adult is supposed to also be a domain expert, who leads the child to the knowledge. This might not fit well with messy problems, but I guess the adult can still model the kind of critical thinking and inquiry that he/she wants the child to emulate, without necessarily knowing all the answers the child will come up with?

Scaffolding and scripting

There are a number of words used frequently, which are often hard to define. In many of the cases mentioned in this article, scaffolding seems very similar to what I understand as "scripting" (especially when Puntambekar says that the software can help with the "procedural scaffolding" so that the adults can focus on the "cognitive scaffolding").

Perhaps scripting is even defined as one kind of a scaffold, although I've never seen that mentioned anywhere. I'll need to do more reading to see. (I recently read Wecker, et al.'s "S-COL: A Copernican turn for the development of flexibly reusable collaboration scripts", which was a nice introduction to scripting).

I also see the word orchestration used, and am not sure how that fits in. Again, more reading required.

Scaffolding in Knowledge Forum

It's interesting to think about how scaffolding works in Knowledge Forum, given the criticism raised in this article. Scaffolds are definitively "one-size-fits-all", and there is no mechanisms for fading them out, nor have I seen any mention in any of Scardamalia's articles of a desire to gradually "wean" students off these scaffolds.

I wonder if there is a difference between scaffolds and things that simply help you do your thinking better - for example, I could create a template for notes on articles in my wiki, prompting me to answer certain questions, etc. This could by some be described as a scaffold, but I would have no strong need to "overcome it", and internalize it - it's simply another knowledge management tool.

Many other interesting things brought up in this article too - the link with Skinnerian behaviourism, the difference between peer-facilitation and expert-facilitation, etc. I have already downloaded several of the referenced articles.

Stian HĂ„klev June 4, 2011 Toronto, Canada
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