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Scaffolds vs crutch

Posted on: March 25, 2020

Another concept I teach future faculty is scaffolding.

Cognitive scaffolding is similar to the supporting structures outside a building that you take down when it is no longer needed.

Cognitive scaffolding might take the form of instructions, questions, or prompts. These can be verbal or written, just-in-case or just-in-time.

We have a recent social scaffold that might be used to as a bridge (another scaffold) to understanding cognitive scaffolding. In the face of COVID-19, we have social distancing, i.e., encouraging people to stand or sit a safe distance apart to reduce infection.

Signs: Scaffolding or crutch?

In Singapore, these take the form of lines, dots, or boxes on the ground where people queue, or signs on seats at eateries or libraries to sit farther apart (see photo above). These simple visual tools are scaffolds to guide human behaviour.

But there is a thin line between a scaffold and a crutch. I have noticed that many people do not internalise the need to stay apart in the absence of such scaffolds. For example, they do not do this at bus queues.

When people only seem to change their behaviours in the presence of the scaffolds, those devices are actually crutches. Those people have not learnt because when the crutches are removed, they fall back to old behaviours and show no evidence of learning.

So how might we prevent scaffolds from turning into crutches? I say we periodically and strategically remove them based on our knowledge of content, students, and pedagogy.

It is easier to simply leave the scaffolding in place. But like how the scaffolding outside a building makes it ugly, cognitive scaffolding hides the ugly truth — students have not learnt anything because they have not been challenged to walk on their own.

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