A Different Kind Of Scaffolding in ELT

Acknowledgement: Photo by Kim Traynor (hosted at Wikipedia)
Thanks to Kim Traynor for this image

There was a trainee teacher on my last CELTA course who had come to us without any academic background to speak of but with a wealth of life experience; in the end, he turned out to be one of the most interesting trainees I’ve worked with.

I would like to share a particular story involving him which raises some questions about our profession and professional training.

Scene: the training centre kitchen

Time: a break between sessions
Characters: Me (silent, listening), The trainee (D) and another trainee (T)

T: So you were a sailor, then?
D: Yeah, I’ve done all sorts, me, sailor, scaffolder…
T: Scaffolder, you mean you put up scaffolding?
D: Yeah
T: I saw them doing that down the road here, it went up so fast!
D: Ah monkeys could put up the stuff they use here – it’s all pre-fitted, you just snap it together. Back home we use what you call tube and fit, just plain piping and nuts, much more flexible.
T: Uh huh
D: Yeah, here, you just use these kits, y’know?
T: But what’s wrong with that?
D: You can’t do anything special with it. OK, it’s easy, but you can’t, for example, if you’ve got something round, like a chimney, you can’t build a circular scaffold with that stuff, it’s rubbish.
T: So what do they do?
D: Best they can – you end up with big gaps between the sections, blokes throwing stuff over, jumping across. It’s not safe.
T: No..
D: And it’s just… it’s not elegant, there’s no art to it…
T: Art?
D: Yeah, I mean, a scaffold – a real scaffold, tube and fit, it’s,… I mean, it’s beautiful to look at, it’s art. Inside a huge tower, for example, with a proper fitting scaffold going all the way round inside. Perfect, no gaps, smooth. That’s beautiful, that is.
T: I suppose…
D: Yeah, this stuff you get over here, well, like I said, monkeys could put it up. There’s no skill to it, no art. Anyway, gotta go…

That conversation got me thinking.

(Raw) Material(s) and scaffolding

D is here making a case against using materials for scaffolding that are too specific. He argues that, to be flexible and to be able to fit the local circumstances – literally, to adapt to the contours of its environment – scaffolding needs instead to be as raw as possible. Tube and fit – two elements with which an almost infinite variety of needs can be met, given ingenuity and skill.

The other, superficially more refined kit system, while being faster and easier to work with under certain conditions, quickly reaches its limits when needs become more than basic.

Might this also be the case in our field? Mass-produced courseware, no matter how well-intentioned and no matter how well-designed, cannot possibly claim to be tailored to any given learner or even class. Therefore, any class using mass-produced courseware is necessarily engaged in a compromise – in terms of linguistic content, topical relevance and theory of learning.

Recent blog posts criticising teaching unplugged have suggested – amongst other things – that asking teachers to custom-build material for their learners or respond flexibly to emerging circumstances is unreasonable: that may be.

However, that is only because of a flawed concept of education and how it is acceptable to go about it.

If we take an industrial model to education, it will lead to perceiving such individualising effort as either inefficiency or unjustifiable strain. This reveals only the inadequacy – the lack of fitness for purpose – of the industrial model of education, because education must always be a tailor-made solution, or as close as we can get to one. Education theorists like Ken Robinson have been pointing out the inadequacy of the industrial model of education for some time now, and they haven’t been the first.

Decrying efforts to move in this direction (as teaching unplugged tries to move) as inefficient or unreasonable in the light of current “realities” does not actually stop those efforts from being nevertheless right.

Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained.
M. Gandhi

Further, the criticism that expecting teachers to be(come) adept and practised in using raw materials rather more than in maneuvering pre-fabricated materials is expecting too much of them – could be said to stem from or lead to an impoverished view of what a teacher actually is.

Teacher artistry and scaffolding

Ingenuity and skill are what using raw material well requires – in scaffolding buildings and in scaffolding learning. Skilled professionals take time to develop and are expensive to maintain. It is therefore economically easier to economise work processes by making them “idiot-proof”. This can be observed in the fast-food industry, where the process of creating a meal, once the preserve of skilled chefs, has been reduced to an industrial, production line process so simple and mechanistic that the worker is completely replaceable.

This leads (indeed, is designed to lead) to downward pressure on pay and this leads, in turn, to a downward pressure on the felt and perceived level of professionalism of the job: a fast-food worker does not enjoy the same professional respect or benefits of a well-skilled chef.

Might the same be true of our profession? Might the widespread use of pre-fabricated course materials, whatever their short-term pragmatic benefits and the potential for using them in a principled manner notwithstanding, still inevitably lead to just this kind of de-skilling and de-professionalisation in our field?

You pay peanuts, you get monkeys
– saying –

Scaffolding and scaffolding

The metaphor of scaffolding has found a place in Western education theory since the discovery of Vygotsky; this much is old hat. The question is: how much focus is there really on initial teacher training courses on how to scaffold – really scaffold – learner talk and learner learning?

D’s criticism of “scaffolding kits” which appear to offer quick and convenient support for workers often leave alarming gaps which have to be dangerously bridged. At best, there is an awkward fit between the structure in progress and the scaffold ostensibly there to serve it; at worst, the scaffold presents a danger to those using it.

Are there parallels to be drawn here to a teacher’s attempts to scaffold their learner’s discourse when the teacher has a only superficial grasp of what scaffolding actually is and what it requires in order to be supportive and effective?

Do popular training courses spend sufficient time not only on discussing the notion of scaffolding, but also on working intensely on developing competence in doing it?

A little Learning is a dangerous thing
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

In short: do ELT professionals have some lessons to learn from a different kind of scaffolder?


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