Scaffolding and the three bears #moocmooc

This week one of the themes of #MOOCMOOC, a free open online ‘course’ exploring instructional design from a critical pedagogy perspective, is subversion. It has me reflecting on scaffolding and the role it plays in my teaching. What is particularly interesting this semester is that I’m teaching two graduate courses in Instructional Design. One course is foundational and the students are in their first year (or even first semester) of graduate school. Many are also taking online courses for the first time. The second course is an elective that has a bunch of prerequisites, such that it is one of the last courses students take before graduating. So the level of scaffolding that I apply in each course is different. The expectations of what the students already know is different.

Instructional design itself is a challenging topic to address from a critical perspective. The foundations course itself is based largely upon the Dick, Carey, and Carey (please, please pretty please don’t drop the second Carey, it is disrespectful) model of instructional systems design. It is very process heavy. In many ways, it is a very rigid way of tackling instructional design. However, it is foundational. In order to critically evaluate anything, you first need to develop an understanding or appreciation of the thing your are critiquing. It is unfair to say it is rigid and throw it out without first understanding why it is rigid and what aspects of it are worth keeping.  You cannot do that if you don’t first understand it.

Now, getting back to my scaffolding. As I prepare course materials and weekly lessons, I find that I ask myself, how much of a scaffold do I need to provide for this topic? It reminded me of the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Too much scaffolding and you are smothering your students. They have no room for creativity or self-expression. Too little scaffolding and they feel lost. They are disempowered because they don’t know where to start. So my job is to find the middle ground – to find the bed that is not too hard and not too soft, or the porridge that is not too hot and not too cold.

I also want to point out that in some cases the content is prescribed as a way to reduce the amount of effort students need to undertake in order to focus on the content of the lesson itself. I could tell students to “go research this topic”, but sometimes, it is my job to curate resources on that topic, so they are not waste time and mental energy on the “research” aspect – so that they can spend their time understanding and critiquing the topic itself. So, sometimes I prescribe content as way to help my students focus their critiques. Yes, I am making a judgement call here. Yes, I am imposing my biases on my student’s experience. That is why they are taking a course from me. That is, in part, the value that I add to the learning process.

The level of scaffolding I provide is different for the two courses. The students coming into the courses are coming from very different places. I can make assumptions in one that I cannot make in the other.

If you were to read this and not see my courses, you would think they are overly rigid. That they are overly prescribed. For the first course, you’d mostly be right. I’m drawing a lot on the work of previous instructors, which designed a course that is overly prescribed. This is in part because the topic itself is instructional systems design, and we need to be modeling the process in the design of the course itself (yes, very meta). The second course is about designing online courses (even more meta) – and there I get a lot more freedom in how the course is structured and what is taught in the course itself. In that course, I’m trying to disrupt what is learned about instructional systems design to show other ways of learning online.

That being said, even within the rigid course, I design in learner choice. I design in options for learners to explore topics and technologies of their choice, on their own, without my guidance and scaffolding – unless of course they want the guidance and scaffolding. I’m always there to answer questions or help along a student that needs the help.

I am reminded of one of the Urban Legends in Education (Kirschner, 2013) that “learners know best” – if we only have learner choice, then learners will chose the way they think they learn best. However, that isn’t always the best way to learn something. Sometimes, the learners need to be made uncomfortable to learn. Learning isn’t always easy. It isn’t always fun. Sometimes, you need to do the grunt work of something in order to really appreciate what it means to do it. If you aren’t pushed to do it, you don’t learn it.

With scaffolding, since both my courses are somewhat meta – that is, they both model the technique and teach about the technique – I must do some level of scaffolding. Figuring out that exact balance can be a challenge. We don’t always get it right. In part because the scaffolding that is needed one semester may not be needed the next – the students will be different, they will bring something different to the course, their stories will be different.

I must also reflect that with each course I teach, I also learn. I learn from my students. They teach me new ways of seeing the content / the topics. They teach me new ways of teaching and guiding learners through the process. That is part of what I find more rewarding about teaching. I love watching my students work through the course, and seeing the ah-ha moments as their are brought to the surface in weekly discussion and reflection activities. That is why I love teaching – because I love learning from my students, just as much as they like learning from me.


Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169-183. doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

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