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A black and white photograph of a building under construction. The title reads "Scaffolding: A Skill that Helps Audiences Learn Effectively

Scaffolding: A Skill that Helps Audiences Learn Effectively

If you want to understand why scaffolding is part of good instructional design, take a note from Julie Andrews. Better yet, take a scale of 8 notes.

Scaffolding 101: Know Your Audience

“Let’s start at the very beginning,
A very good place to start.
When you read, you begin with? ABC.
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi”

Julie Andrews as Maria, The Sound of Music

When Maria begins strumming her guitar for an initial music lesson with the von Trapp children, she very sensibly begins with an easy comparison. The children range from ages 5 to 16, so Maria needs an approach that will work across their stages of development. Associating the first three notes with the first three letters of the alphabet not only establishes the idea of a series, but it also demonstrates the rising increments between each one. After a few repetitions, the children confidently sing “Do, Re, Mi.” 

Maria then rattles off the full solfège, the names assigned to each note to make them easier to distinguish from each other while learning music. Just as quickly, she realizes that because “the first three notes just happen to be” meaningless and arbitrary, she needs to “make it easier.”

She makes a double mnemonic device by combining association with songs and rhymes, a tool so effective that many people learn scales through this song, even if they haven’t seen The Sound of Music:

Do, a deer, a female deer
Re, a drop of golden sun
Mi, a name I call myself
Fa, a long, long way to run

So, a needle pulling thread
La, a note to follow So
Ti, a drink with jam and bread
That will bring us back to Do, oh, oh, oh

As the von Trapp children’s governess, Maria knows to first introduce a concept by comparing it to a well-known parallel example, and then simplify it so she can present it in a way that sticks with her audience. And the many, many audiences of music students and movie-goers since.

Scaffolding 102: Build from the Ground Up

Scaffolding is the education strategy in which complex tasks are broken into simpler units.

Physical buildings obviously have to start with the foundation and build each floor once the lower one can support its weight. Education works in the same way. The basic concepts come first, followed by increasingly complex examples and applications.

In both situations, there’s no benefit – and much wasted effort and resources – to beginning with any other part of the process.

Like the skeletal structure of poles and platforms that support a building during construction by holding up the walls while the load-bearing cross-beams are put in place, scaffolding in education supports students while they’re learning new material, before they have complete mastery of it. Once the new becomes familiar and enters procedural memory, the scaffolding is moved to support the next phase of learning.

Eventually, the building is finished / the complex concept is learned, and the scaffolding removed completely. What’s left is a free-standing structure that supports itself because it was built using sound principles. Those earlier stages have been fully integrated into the final result. Perhaps the outcome is so polished that it seems inevitable, like the scaffolding hadn’t really been needed.

Don’t be fooled: neither the building nor the learning outcome could exist without appropriate support at the necessary time.

Scaffolding 103: Use a Variety of Tools

Scaffolding takes a number of forms, depending on factors such as audience size & their familiarity with the material, the complexity of the topic, the length of time for the workshop/class/course, and whether it’s a stand-alone session or part of a specific series.

I use scaffolding frequently in my writing classes. Before introducing a new concept, I’ll have students write about what they think they already know about it and use that to launch class discussion. This lets me gauge their knowledge and dispel misunderstandings. At the beginning of each project, I ask students to tell me whether they’ve done something like it before and how that experience went. As we wrap up a project, they then reflect on what they learned – and most importantly – how they can apply that to the next project. For particularly detailed ideas, I might use a quiz through our course LMS that lets students keep re-taking it until they get 100%.

If you’re a speaker, how can you think about scaffolding for an audience you’ll see only once, without knowing beforehand their current level of knowledge on your topic? Conveniently, many of the same techniques for building rapport and engagement with your audience also help speakers use scaffolding effectively:

  • Ask the coordinator or event manager who they’re expecting to be in the audience
  • Chat with audience members as they arrive, ask what led them to take your session
  • Ask the audience to raise their hands for a knowledge or experience check throughout your presentation
  • Share common myths or misconceptions about your topic and explain why they persistent despite being incorrect
  • Use interactive tools to take a poll or quiz and display the results
  • Display QR Code to a link with more information
  • Ask for audience feedback about the topic, so you can adjust scaffolding as needed for your next presentation
  • Remember: less is more. Your audience will have a stronger understanding of one or two central points rather than trying to retain a little bit about multiple ideas

Scaffolding is Essential for SMEs

When you’re a Subject Matter Expert, or SME, you know your content through and through. As Kirsten has said, the irony is that the more of an expert you are, the harder it is to see your material as an outsider, as a beginner who has no idea of where a very good place to start might be.

And yet, that’s when scaffolding is most necessary. You can’t effectively present expert-level information to a novice or beginner audience. They’ll be too overwhelmed to remember everything and as a result, will remember very little at all. Scaffolding helps your audience not only learn the content, but also understand and integrate the context in which they’ll be using it.

Scaffolding is NOT “dumbing down” complicated material in a way that eliminates nuance.

On the contrary, scaffolding supports complexity because it ensures that learners have everything they need to go beyond the surface of an idea and see intersections between what they already know and what you’re presenting.

How about you?

How do you break complex ideas into simpler ones for your audience? Do you have a favorite interactive tool or approach? Have you been part of an audience where a SME forgot that not everyone knows the subject as well as they do? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Our podcast, Ongoing Mastery: Presenting & Speaking, covers everything connected to continually improving your craft of being a public speaker, from interviews and mini-coaching sessions with guests to conversations between Kirsten and Kellie. Come join us.

Cheers, Kellie

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