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Posts Tagged ‘crutch

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.

As I grade and provide feedback on essays by future faculty, my mind wanders to something I wrote over scattered reflections: A scaffold can easily become a crutch.

In education, a scaffold is meant to help a novice bridge a cognitive gap they otherwise would not be able to cross on their own. Examples of scaffolds include guiding questions, headers or sections in essays, prompts from interactive tools, timely or contextualised links to resources, etc.

Like a scaffold around a building, scaffolds must be removed because they have served their purpose and are unsightly.

The same could be said about educational scaffolds. However, they tend to remain because teachers might find them convenient and learners become dependent on them. When this happens, the scaffolds become crutches because neither teacher nor student learns to stand on their own.

At the moment, I see crutches in the form of lesson patterns and essay starters. These are not necessary given the context: The learners are advanced, their backgrounds are so diverse as to make the standard approach meaningless, and the scaffolds themselves are not well-designed.

The scaffolds have become crutches because learners follow them instead of learning to think independently or because they fear making mistakes. Such unintended consequences might be the worst outcomes of relying unnecessarily on scaffolds.

If you buy five small items from a pastry shop in a local mall or heartlands shop, you are likely to carry them off in six plastic bags. Each item will be in its own bag and all five will be in a larger one.

This example sounded familiar to me because I wrote about this in 1999 when I used to maintain my own website. Back then I asked myself, tongue firmly in cheek:

Why did each pastry need its own plastic bag? Were they “psychologically insecure” so that they need their own space? Was there some “racial” hatred among buns?

I noticed our insecure bun phenomenon almost 16 years ago. Why is our wasteful plastic bag legacy so hard to get rid of? The simple answer is that we have collectively enabled it.

Take another example.

In a letter to the ST forum, the co-founder of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement described how appalled he was with the state of littering post New Year’s Day parties despite the provision of 400 rubbish bins. Hundreds of workers had to clean up after party revellers. It reinforced the fact that we are not a naturally clean city but a cleaned one.

He compared Taipei with us:

  • Taipei: Three million residents, 5,000 cleaners
  • Singapore: Five million residents, 70,000 cleaners

A Singapore task force visiting Taipei found the Taiwanese city to be cleaner than ours. Why? In Taipei, people learn to pick up after themselves. In Singapore, we learn that someone else will clean up after us.

Back to bagging things.

According to this ST article, a cotton-based recyclable bag must be used at least 11 times to have a lower carbon footprint than the normal plastic bags liberally provided at grocery stores. The problem was that we receive too many recyclable bags. We do not use them as often as they should be used, or worse, dispose of them.

Providing so many rubbish bins or recyclable bags so that it is convenient for us has made us lazy. What should be a scaffold to promote good behaviour has become a crutch.

Look at how the authorities here encourage mixed recycling because they have statistics that show that if they insist on separated recycling, they do not meet KPIs. But they forget that doing this enables laziness: People do not learn to take the trouble to clean and then separate recyclables.

Recycling is as much an attitude as it is a habit. There is no point encouraging the habit by making it convenient, but forgetting about the long term value system of recycling and an equally long term education programme.

Such a programme may take more time and effort. It is also more painful to all stakeholders, but it can be very effective.

The world marvelled when Japanese fans cleaned up after themselves during the World Cup in Brazil. More recently, the Myanmar football fans did the same after a match in Singapore. Such behaviour is learnt and eventually embedded.

When I lived in Arizona, I had to pay for a rubbish collection fee and a recycling bin fee. If I did not recycle, I still had to pay for the latter fee. I was more conscious of what I threw away and what I recycled as a result.

Too much of a good thing is bad when a scaffold, no matter how well-intentioned, becomes a crutch. The better thing to do is to educate and change mindsets even though this is more painful and takes a long time.

The best thing to do is not wait for someone else to run a change programme. I teach my son how to recycle. I refuse multiple bags at pastry shops even though this confuses the aunties who bag the buns. I do these things because enduring processes start one person at a time.

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