Scaffolding, Vertical Unity and Future Ideal Retrospective

A proposed method for you to define “scaffolding”( that:
a) has a vertical unity, from which changes horizontally flow;
b) can be revised or repeated readily in different situations;
c) is not so much taken away once the structure is built as internalized and thus gets built on;
d) integrates your personal perspectives with those of others (while not attempting to span the various levels of social action in intersecting social worlds).


1. Define an area of work and life in which you want to grow and develop.

2. Future Ideal Retrospective brainstorming

  • Imagine it is [date xx years in the future], you meet someone and you are telling them: “I am very pleased how skilled and effective I have become in [fill in the area].” The person asks you to tell them what things happened over that last [xx] years to bring you to this state. Identify as many things as possible, putting them down on post-its each having 3-5 word in block letters. These things can span the mundane and inspiring; tangible and intangible; process, as well as product; relationships as well as individual skills. (By mundane, think of all the different tasks on your plate that potentially affect your ability to grow and develop in a way that is satisfying.)
  • Generate post-its first on your own, then, if possible, in a group that shares an interest in that general area (without necessarily having a commitment to working together on a full participatory planning process). Combine your own post-its with those you appreciate from the larger set generated by the group, aiming for 35-50 post-its in total.

3. Clustering and naming

  • Move the Post-its around into groups of items that have something in common in the way they address the Future Ideal Retrospective question.
  • Describe the groups using a phrase that has a verb in it or, at least, indicates some action or movement towards the future ideal. That means not nouns and categories such as “humor” or “scramble,” but “Kept humor about the scramble needed to keep things going.” Similarly, instead of “Holistic Artistic Survival Project,” an active name would be “Moving Holistically from Surviving to Thriving as Artists.”
  • Group the groups in pairs or threes and also give these larger groups descriptive active names.
  • Group these groups and name them, until you arrive at a descriptive active name for the Post-its as a whole.


4. Amateur version of “interpretive structural modeling”

  • Consider each pair of clusters. Connect the first cluster to the second with an arrow if you think that addressing or acknowledging the consideration reflected in the first cluster makes it easier to address the consideration reflected in the second cluster. Then, vice versa. The result should be a hierarchy from “deep drivers” upwards. Arrange the clusters, if possible, so that the names of the higher groupings of clusters can be superimposed (see example below). The result is a depiction of the “vertical unity” of your scaffolding in the area of work and life you defined.


5. Put scaffolding into practice (aka the vertical unity generates the horizontal changes)
Consider a specific situation you face now in your area and brainstorm specific actions (including, if still appropriate, selections from the original post-its). Align these post-its with the clusters in your scaffolding. Emphasize first the actions that address the considerations in the lower clusters. Once those considerations have been digested (=processed until they are part of who you are), take actions that would address more the higher-up cluster considerations.
(Illustration — click on any rung of the scaffolding to the post-its that correspond to it.)

  • 26 June ’13: I brainstormed a few more post-its related to a specific project in the area of health but didn’t get into details because a) I’m waiting for a response to indicate that there are openings to pursue and b) the deep drivers about FEAR and VARIATION re: STUCK PLACES need attention that is not tied to the specific project.
  • The provisional lesson or conjecture is that if attention is given to the deep drivers, actions on the higher rungs of the scaffold will follow (inspired by what underlies each run). Conversely, getting very involved in the higher rungs runs the risk of being a diversion from paying attention to the deep drivers.

Open questions

i. How to link the different scaffoldings that members of a group prepare (as against each individual doing their own thing on their own)?
ii. How to envisage vertical unities for actions above the personal level (e.g., implementing a carbon tax)?


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, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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