Scaffolding versus externally imposed internalised rules

I am beginning the see the idea of “scaffolding” as providing an alternative to the idea of externally imposed rules that are internalised by participants in a workshop or learning experience.

The term “rule” suggests an externally imposed limit, albeit one decided by the group (or like groups before it).  The term “groundrule” modifies that suggestion to add a sense that what is being laid out becomes the ground or basis for what we do.  That is, the external rule becomes internalized and informs what we do.  (Similarly, if the term “norm” or “touchstone” is used.)

Now, although I would like being in a workshop where everyone has internalized groundrules, such as, I want to ask why someone should or would internalize these groundrules?  What is the psycho-social dynamic model implied here?  The answer that emerges for me is that a person feels that there is an external collective judgement that is critical of anyone who falls short.

That is a simple model.  When I ponder on alternatives, my not-yet-well-articulated sense of scaffolding is up front for me.  I have been chewing on scaffolding as an idea of making it possible for people to pick up on one or more of many things made available—insights, tools, connections, in short, pieces of scaffolding—when they are ready.  That means that people have to be “stewing” in a “pot” of many different things.  In this vein, contrast the ground rules above with the wider set of items under the sequence respect->risk->revelation->reengagement that I also see as the basis for a safe and productive workshop, .  A more dynamic model is implied by the 4Rs: people get drawn into respect for others at the same time as they are provided conditions for respecting themselves.  This respect then makes it more likely that the rest of the sequence of Rs happen.  (“[M]utual Respect allows Risks to be taken, elicits more insights than any one person came in with (Revelation), and engages us in carrying out and carrying on the plans we develop (Re-engagement). What we come out with is very likely to be larger and more durable than what any one person came in with; the more so, the more voices that are brought out by the process.”)  The psychosocial model is not one of limits, but of positivity—at each of the Rs a person gets to be more fulfilled and more of an agent, while being less subject to external rules, internalized or reinforced by external collective judgement.  More needs to be thought out here about the circumstances in which groups or minorities within groups need to be protected by explicit rules, groundrules, or norms, but for now, let me note that most of the groundrules in the earlier link are rules about respect.

As part of this line of inquiry into scaffolding, I have also been thinking about the “touchstones” for Circles of Trust,, and thinking about what is not emphasized there but present in the groundrules and 4Rs checklist above.  At this point the psychosocial model I see in Circles of Trust is that people who find their vocation can move forward and influence the systems that are in, perhaps creating scaffolding for others, but, for themselves, the scaffolding is self-scaffolding subsumed under the label of “courage.”  In order to find that vocation, a person needs to go many times in retreat, to step out of their web of social commitments into circles of trust where the supportive, respectful but non-directive interactions with other retreatants provides a space in which personal reflection leads to revelation of their vocation and to affirmation of taking the risk to live differently, “divided no more.”  In contrast the 4Rs scaffolding model can inform all kinds of workshops and learning interactions of shorter duration that do not focus on a unitary endpoint (finding one’s vocation).  Perhaps the lack of this endpoint or goal invites participants to glimpse alternatives but not follow through on making change.  There’s more to be thought about here…

Having been asked for a guest blog post about creativity

I direct an unusual graduate program called Critical and Creative Thinking (  I think we do quite well in achieving our goal, which is to provide our mid-career or career-changing students with “knowledge, tools, experience, and support so they can become constructive, reflective agents of change in education, work, social movements, science, and creative arts.”   Before explaining my sense of creativity, let me explain why critical thinking is combined with creative thinking and also, ‘though it is not in the name, with reflective practice.

Critical thinking, creative thinking, and reflective practice are valued, of course, in all fields. In critical thinking we seek to scrutinize the assumptions, reasoning, and evidence brought to bear on an issue-by others and by oneself; such scrutiny is enhanced by placing ideas and practices in tension with alternatives. Key functions of creative thinking include generating alternative ideas, practices, and solutions that are unique and effective, and exploring ways to confront complex, messy, ambiguous problems, make new connections, and see how things could be otherwise. In reflective practice we take risks and experiment in putting ideas into practice, then take stock of the outcomes and revise our approaches accordingly.

Against this backdrop, my thinking is that creativity comes not out of individual inspiration, but from borrowing and connecting.  The more items in your tool box—the more themes, heuristics (rules of thumb), and open questions you are working with—the more likely you are to make a new connection and see how things could be otherwise, that is, to be creative.  Yet, in order to build up a set of tools that works for you, it is necessary to experiment, take risks, and reflect on the outcomes.  Such reflective practice is like a journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas—it involves risk, opens up questions, provides more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, requires support, and yields personal change.  We might then say that creativity is part of what happens to “journeying inquirers.”

As an educator, I like to play with the 3Rs (only one of which actually starts with an R).  Here (from page 257 of Taking Yourself Seriously) are the many Rs that journeying inquirers might pursue—sometimes focusing in, sometimes opening out—in their personal and professional development as critical, creative, and reflective practitioners.



Reasoning w/ respect to evidence & alternatives

Relationship w/ oneself (moving towards autonomy)

Reflection & metacognition


Relationships w/ peers & allies (dialogue & collaboration)

Risk & experiment


Rearrange, adapt & create

Reception: being Read, heard, & Reviewed

Relationships w/ authority (negotiate power & standards)

Revision (incl. dialogue around written work)


Research & evaluation (learning from the work of others & your own)

Respect (explore difference)

Responsibility (concern w/ aims, means & consequences)


Recursion & practice (address same concern from many angles & in variety of settings)

Reevaluation (of emotions at root of responses) so as to better take initiative

Reconstruction (personal/organizational/social change)

Critical, Creative and Reflective Practice: Sketch of a possible booklet

The small critical thinking guides of Richard Paul and Linda Elder have received wide circulation, but the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program at UMass Boston has something distinctive to convey about supporting the development of critical thinking, as well as creative thinking and reflective practice. Thus this sketch of a possible booklet.

A small guide to Critical, Creative and Reflective Practice

Tools and Processes

In a sense subscribed to by all teachers, critical thinking means that students are bright and engaged, ask questions, and think about the course materials until they understand well established knowledge and competing approaches. This becomes more significant when students develop their own processes of active inquiry, which they can employ in new situations, beyond the bounds of our particular classes, indeed, beyond their time as students. My sense of critical thinking is, however, more specific; it depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives. At this level, critical thinking should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted. Students can no longer expect that if they just wait long enough the teacher will provide complete and tidy conclusions; instead they have to take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning. Anxieties inevitably arise for students when they have to respond to new situations knowing that the teacher will not act as the final arbiter of their success. A high level of critical thinking is possible when students explore such anxieties and gain the confidence to face uncertainty and ambiguity. To develop as a critical thinker is, then, like journeying into unfamiliar areas, which involves risk, opens up questions, creates more experiences than can be integrated at first, requires support, and yields personal and professional change. In a similar spirit, in Reflective Practice students take risks and experiment in putting ideas into practice, then take stock of the outcomes and revise their approaches accordingly. Creative Thinking is about generating alternative ideas, practices, and solutions, exploring ways to confront complex, messy, ambiguous problems, making new connections, and seeing how things could be otherwise—that is, formulating alternatives that can be held in tension with previous ideas and practices.

This booklet describes a range of tools and processes that provide space and support for students to develop as critical thinkers, creative thinkers, and reflective practitioners. The key challenge is to help people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Each entry then raises some questions for further inquiry or discussion. The hope is that the booklet as a whole stimulates readers to grapple with issues they were not aware they faced and to generate questions beyond those any teacher presents. We invite readers to understand this booklet’s emphasis on the intra- and inter-personal by placing it in tension with philosophical formulations of teaching critical thinking that insist that students scrutinize the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims and adopt the connotations that the term “critical” often has with judgement and finding fault according to some standards.

See next post for possible Table of Contents.

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Re-engagement)

Re-engagement— Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants’ gears are re-engaged (to use a machine metaphor), allowing us to mobilize and sustain quite a high level of energy during the collaboration. But re-engagement goes beyond an individual’s enhanced enthusiasm. It is a collective or emergent result of the activities that bring people who have generative differences into meaningful interactions that can catalyze transformations. In other words, meaningful social engagement and opportunities for personal introspection contribute to participants discovering new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the collaboration.

  • inquire further on the issues that arise in our own projects.
  • select and focus on a subset of the specific plans or knowledge generated during the collaboration in our subsequent work.
  • engage actively with others.
  • inquire further into how we can support the work of others.
  • are reminded of our aspirations to work in supportive communities.
  • make the experiences of the collaboration a basis for subsequent efforts to cultivate collaborators.
  • arrange to assist or apprentice with the facilitator in a future collaboration.

(Of course, what we state in the end-of-collaboration evaluations cannot show that we will follow through on intentions to stay connected or to make shifts in our own projects and work relations. A need or desire for periodic re-charging of our ideas and intentions is evident when past participants return to subsequent collaborations.)
[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Revelation)

Revelation—A space is created by respect and risk in which participants bring thoughts and feelings to the surface so as to articulate, clarify and complicate our ideas, relationships, and aspirations—in short, our identities. (Recall the principle that we know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge.) Our own self-understandings are extended when we are respectful partners with others in the risky business of self-exploration. In this spirit, we:

  • do not fill up quiet spaces that occur.
  • take time to reflect on and digest our experiences.
  • gain insight into our present place and direction by hearing what we happen to mention and omit in telling our own stories.
  • bring to the surface knowledge that we were not able, at first, to acknowledge.
  • “re-mark” the various ways we understand ourselves, others, and the world, together with the understandings and expectations—some welcome, some not—that are pressed back upon us.
  • integrate experience from the collaboration with our own concerns.
  • make our entire thought process visible, including tacit assumptions.
  • invite others to add new dimensions to what we are thinking.
  • strive to find ways to make un(der)expressed voices articulate.
  • examine decisions we had made in advance about what the other people are like, what they are and are not capable of.
  • take notice of who exposes their ideas and questions in one-on-one interaction with us.
  • limit advocacy—making a statement—in favor of inquiry—seeking clarifications and deeper understanding; we do not impose our opinion or use questions to expose weakness.
  • generate new possibilities for knowing and being through activities that bring participants into revelatory relationships, that is, actively implicated us in one another’s revelations.
  • reflect on each phase—together or individually—leading to a tangible product to take into next phase.

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Effective collaborators: Skills and dispositions (Risk)

Risk—Respect creates a space with enough safety for participants to take risks of various kinds. In particular, we:

  • speak personally.
  • share knowledge we bring to the surface.
  • get to know more about each others’ not-yet-stable aspects.
  • share the experience of being unsure, but excitable and open to learn and to change.
  • make use of opportunities to reveal and remark upon oneself.
  • view the collaboration as a journey into unknown areas or allowing us to see familiar areas in a fresh light. (A journey involves risk; requires support; creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight; yields personal changes.)
  • ask for help and support during the collaboration.
  • participate—perhaps quite playfully—during unfamiliar processes.
  • are open to surprises and spontaneous insights emerging from interactions among people who were strangers beforehand.
  • expose our ideas and questions in one-on-one interaction with participants who have more experience and formal status.
  • allow ourselves to probe conclusions we began with.
  • accept uncertainty and instability—”What exactly is going to happen? What should I be doing?”—as the collaboration unfolds (even without an explicit agreement on where we are headed and without certainty about how to achieve desired outcomes).
  • stay in there when the process seems rough—not stepping back into the role of critic or consumer.

(In all these aspects of risk-taking, collaborations benefit from the participation of “veterans” who have participated in collaborations conducted along similar lines.)

[See Introduction to this series of posts.]

Four R's of developing as a collaborator

Group processes not only need skillful and effective facilitators; they also need participants or collaborators who are skilled and effective in contributing to the desired outcomes. To develop skills and dispositions of collaboration requires researchers (and researchers-in-training) to make opportunities for practicing what they have been introduced to and to persist even when they encounter resistance. What moves them to pursue such development?

I have had an opportunity to address this issue since 2004 through an annual series of experimental, interaction-intensive, interdisciplinary workshops “to foster collaboration among those who teach, study, and engage with the public about scientific developments and social change.” The workshops are documented in detail on their websites, but a thumbnail sketch would be: They are small, with international, interdisciplinary participants of mixed “rank” (i.e., from students, to professors). There is no delivery of papers; instead participants lead each other in activities, designed before or developed during the workshops, that can be adapted to college classrooms and other contexts and participate in group processes that are regular features of the workshops. The group processes are also offered as models or tools to be adapted or adopted in other contexts. The themes vary from year to year, but each workshop lasts four days and moves through four broad, overlapping phases—exposing diverse points of potential interaction; focusing on detailed case study; activities to engage participants in each other’s projects; and taking stock. The informal and guided opportunities to reflect on hopes and experiences during the workshop produce feedback that shapes the days ahead as well as changes to the design of subsequent workshops.

The ongoing evolution of the workshops has been stimulated not only by written and spoken evaluations, but also by an extended debriefing immediately following each workshop and advisory group discussions, such as one in 2008 that addressed the question of what moves people develop themselves as collaborators. Our conjecture was that this development happens when participants see an experience or training as transformative. After reviewing the evaluations we identified four “R’s”—respect, risk, revelation, and re-engagement—as conditions that make interactions among participants transformative (see below and Taylor et al. 2010 for elaboration and supporting quotations from the evaluations). A larger set of R’s for personal and professional development will be presented in a later post (indeed, the larger set pre-dated and had some influence on the formulation of these 4R’s).
Four R’s that make interactions among researchers transformative

1. Respect. The small number and mixed composition of the workshop participants means that participants have repeated exchanges with those who differ from them. Many group processes promote listening to others and provide the experience of being listened to. Participation in the activities emphasizes that each participant, regardless of background or previous experience has something valuable to contribute to the process and outcomes. In these and other ways, respect is not simply stated as a ground rule, but is enacted.
2. Risk. Respect creates a space with enough safety for participants to take risks of various kinds, such as, speaking personally during the autobiographical introductions, taking an interest in points of view distant in terms of discipline and experience, participating—sometimes quite playfully—during unfamiliar processes, and staying with the process as the workshop unfolds or “self-organizes” without an explicit agreement on where it is headed and without certainty about how to achieve desired outcomes.
3. Revelation. A space is created by respect and risk in which participants bring thoughts and feelings to the surface that articulate, clarify and complicate their ideas, relationships, and aspirations—in short, their identities. In the words of one participant: “The various activities do not simply build connections with others, but they necessitate the discovery of the identity of others through their own self-articulations. But since those articulations follow their own path, one sees them not as simple reports of some static truth but as new explorations of self, in each case. Then one discovers this has happened to oneself as much as to others-one discovers oneself anew in the surprising revelations that emerge in the process of self-revelation.”
4. Re-engagement. Respect, risk, and revelation combine so that participants’ “gears” engage allowing them to sustain quite a high level of energy during throughout the workshop. The participants engage actively with others, and, equally importantly, are reminded of their aspirations to work in supportive communities. Participants say they discover new possibilities for work with others on ideas they brought to the workshop.

Adapted from Taylor, P., S. Fifield and C. Young (2010) “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop,” Science as Culture, forthcoming.


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