Learning from a 4-day workshop about scaffolding scientific and social change

Although the term “scaffolding” was used often and participants had experiences of being scaffolded, there was little explicit discussion or posting of ideas about scaffolding at a recent 4-day workshop on “Scaffolding Scientific and Social Change.”  In advance of digesting the workshop evaluations, let me post on what my reflections on the workshop in relation to my own developing ideas.

1. The experience that participants had of being scaffolded by each other derived from the workshop program combining a) the 4Rs framework now customary at NewSSC workshops with b) each participant bringing their own personal project on scientific and social change into the workshop (in the spirit of a “Collaborative exploration,” but condensed into 4 days) (see scenario for workshop).

1a. In brief, the 4Rs framework holds that workshops should begin with activities that enhance Respect for the “private universes” each of us have and the diversity of other participants, because that makes Risks more likely, in the sense of departing from predefined understandings and practice, which, in turn, fosters new insights or Revelations—seeing our own work in new ways and understanding it in ways that are our own—which, in turn, leads us to Re-engage—each of us with ourself (=the happiness of learning in the now, Makiguchi) and through collaborations to influence some issues that concern us. The way this plays out in the 4-day NewSSC workshop is described at http://wp.me/p1gwfa-4a.

1b. In brief, Collaborative Explorations (CEs) are an extension of PBL and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry and developing their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word).  Although the scenarios involve real issues, but there is no assumption that participants will pursue the case beyond the limited duration of the CE.  In this case, the scenario asked participants “to shape and pursue directions of inquiry that link the questions [about the idea of scaffolding] to planning how we might extend our own, diverse projects of inquiry and engagement in scientific and social change.”

2. The experience in #1 was actually many small, but often quite meaningful experiences. They ranged someone thinking to order dinner for a participant who had to step out of the restaurant for an extended phone conversation home to a small point made during a dialogue hour leading one participant to shift the focus of their already-prepared work-in-progress presentation.  From resonant comments made in plus-delta feedback sheet to affirming affirmations shared on the last day.  And so on.  The point is that the multitude of small experiences cannot be enumerated, let alone visualized in any straightforward image.  It seems that scaffolding as experienced during the workshop is more like what’s below, in which it is not clear to me what all the elements are, plus some living things added (like friendly rats running up and down the poles?).


3. The scaffolding that went on was more at the personal level than “transversally” connecting personal and political economic levels or analyzing “intersecting processes.”  Given that the workshop explicitly asked participants to “extend our own, diverse projects of inquiry and engagement,” there was no basis for addressing a shared problem as a group in a way that linked levels, say, by combining intersecting processes with historical scan to generate enactable, group-specific praxis.  On the other hand, it now seems to me that addressing a shared problem as a group is more likely to be successful if the collaborators have been “cultivated” for a few days at the personal level.  This said, the tiredness of participants after 3 days of this workshop tells us that there would need to be R&R (rest and reflection) time between the cultivating collaborators phase and the generation of group-specific praxis, or two separate workshops.

4.  This all means that further development of the ideas and practices of scaffolding is needed if it is to help us in “transversal engagement,” a term I used in a talk last year to interdisciplinary social science doctoral students to refer to “practice and policy” that:

• takes seriously the creativity & capacity-building from well-facilitated participation among people who share a place or livelihood

• mitigates adverse trans-local decisions

• incorporates knowledge-making of non-local or trans-local researchers, including their analyses of abstracted dynamics of political-economic change.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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