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…


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor teaches and directs programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He studies the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context as well as innovation in teaching, group process, and interdisciplinary collaboration (see He is especially interested in conversations with others who are, in diverse ways, "troubled by heterogeneity" (

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