One of my sons recently taught me a lesson about scaffolding. For years now, he’s been riding a bike with training wheels, but this summer we wanted him to learn to ride without them. They’re noisy and cumbersome, and they really slowed him down. So, I encouraged him to ride upright, so that he wasn’t on the training wheels. I was even planning to start raising the wheels, so that he would be less dependent on them. The idea, I guess, was that he’d eventually decide he didn’t need them.
Well, things didn’t work out that way. He kept riding on the training wheels, no matter how much I praised him whenever he wasn’t on them. At around this time, though, I saw a segment on Sesame Street that showed Scandinavian kids (much younger than my son) balancing perfectly well on bicycle-like scooters without pedals. I ran out to the garage, pulled both the training wheels and pedals off his bike, and had him sit-and-scoot up and down the street a few times over the course of a couple of days. After about maybe a total of ten minutes riding this way, I put the pedals back on, and (to my great surprise) he was immediately riding on his own.
What’s the lesson here? I think that both approaches–training wheels and removing the pedals–are kinds of scaffolding, but with very different assumptions. The idea with the training wheels was to gradually scale back the amount of support, so that my son would eventually be able to ride on his own. The thing with taking the pedals off, and then putting them back on, was different. Without the distraction of the pedals, he quickly realized that he already knew how to balance on the bike. Once he had that confidence, then riding with the pedals back on wasn’t daunting at all.
All this made me think of The Tipping Point, in which Malcolm Gladwell argues (among other things) that effectual change is often the result of a sudden and dramatic shift, as opposed to gradual changes over time. And this has me wondering about my writing courses, whether I might be employing some well-intentioned, but ultimately counter-productive forms of scaffolding with my students. If so, how do I remove the training wheels, and build on their own sense of balance?