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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


My Scaffold Was Actually a Jenga Tower

Questioning some fundamentals in order to help achieve "resilient pedagogy."

June 15, 2020

I have been following various threads of a discussion around what’s being called “resilient pedagogy,”[1] which is, as I understand it, a framework for thinking about a course design that can withstand disruption, or as we experienced last semester, not just a disruption, but a sudden shift in modality.

Essentially, the pedagogy is resilient so the students don’t have to be, or rather, so students can focus on being resilient in the way students should be resilient, rather than having to spend an inordinate amount of time struggling with logistics before they even get to the course material.

The reality pedagogy framework resonates with me because I was already moving toward it by necessity, partly because my book, The Writer’s Practice, needs to work as a guide toward developing as a writer even in the absence of an instructor, and also because ever since I moved to Charleston, S.C., planning for disruption due to hurricane evacuation has been a necessity.

(Though, strangely enough, one year we lost time to a week of snow and ice also.)

One of the most important things I discovered when designing a writing course around disruption was that what I was calling “scaffolding” was, in reality, a Jenga tower.

You know Jenga, right? The game where you start with a stack of blocks and you take turns removing one block at a time? The person who knocks down the tower when removing a block loses. Unlike with scaffolding, which is meant to support, the Jenga tower’s ultimate destiny is to collapse.

Scaffolding, as I was taught, was meant to help students build skills and proficiencies assignment to assignment. For example, in a first-year writing course, the skill of summary -- accurately and concisely relaying the argument and/or ideas of another -- is a fundamental skill.

This may be followed up with an assignment in summary and response, where the summary of someone else’s argument is followed by an argument of the student’s own. Summary and response then underpin subsequent assignments that require students to interpret and comment on other texts in order to make arguments, culminating in the traditional “research paper” an extended argument rooted in original analysis.

To build my scaffolding, I would spend a lot of time focused on what students’ summaries should look like on the page, with particular emphasis on the use of “claim verbs,” (says, argues, believes, claims, etc. …) in order to properly signal someone else’s argument. I thought hammering students on claim verbs would lead them to see other texts through the lens of argument. Rather than summarizing content -- “Smith talks about how youth participation in sports is correlated with better future health” -- students would be conditioned to zero in on the argument: “Smith claims that participating in sports as a child leads to living a healthier life as an adult.”

This distinction is ultimately very important when it comes to building an extended, multifaceted, original argument of the student’s making, while marshaling multiple sources in support of that argument.

This was always the goal of the research paper, and as I have written in the past, it didn’t work.

While the scaffolding and sequencing of the semester worked in theory, there is always going to be wrench or two in the works in there somewhere. The difficulties are present before the semester starts given that students are inevitably starting their journeys from different places. The speed and certainty with which students acquire these skills is variable as well.

When each subsequent assignment is meant to build sequentially on the previous assignment, which is built sequentially on the assignment before that, pretty quickly you can have a majority of the class on shaky footing, as just about everyone will lack some essential learning.

Throw in a week or more of canceled classes because it seems like a hurricane is going to strike your city, and suddenly there’s a lot of worry about what students aren’t prepared to do, rather than just letting them do things.

Cue the hurling of those best-laid plans overboard.

I realized that all along my students weren’t building scaffolds of learning, but instead something the more resembled a midgame Jenga tower. Sure, it’s standing, but there’s a lot of worrisome holes, and a single wrong move might send it tumbling down.[2]

The mistake I was making was focusing primarily on the skills I thought students needed to build, but when it comes to a writer’s skill, there is no terminal proficiency, so why should I be focused on a particular intermediate threshold of proficiency achieved in isolation (like summarizing an argument)?

This is when I began to utilize the frame of the “writer’s practice,” the skills, knowledge, attitudes and habits of mind of writers. Students in my course didn’t merely need to learn what verbs create claims. They also needed to develop the attitudes and habits of mind that make them better attuned to arguments, so how to express those arguments is more deeply internalized.

To make a good argument, students have to want to make that argument. The desire to be heard and then understood is one of the key attitudes of writers.

This moved me away from scaffolded assignments to somewhat more open “experiences” rooted in the writer’s practice, where students could effectively engage regardless of where they were in their development. A lack of skill or even deficit of knowledge was not going to hold them back from being able to fully engage with the experience. We’re all going to the ski hill, and everyone is going to go from the top to the bottom, but the journey itself is going to be different for everyone.

In the end, this pedagogy is far more resilient because in the case of disruption, I can simply drop an entire experience and the other experiences aren’t going to be unduly harmed. If every experience invokes all dimensions of the writer’s practice, students are going to learn as much as possible in the time they have set aside for learning.

I teach writing, so I can’t say how much this applies to all disciplines, but it strikes me as potentially problematic if we assume that learning under any circumstance is going to be sequential. For pedagogy to be resilient, there must be some tolerance for student disengagement, for whatever reason.

If we’re expecting nothing to disrupt our sequencing, we’re asking for too much during the best of times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic.

Resilient pedagogy allows as much learning when learning is possible, and is there waiting for the student's return, with minimal costs to starting up again. To achieve this may take some fundamental questions about long-standing approaches, but speaking from personal experience, the returns are well worth it.

[1] If you’re on Twitter, I strongly recommend following Joshua Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi. I previously interviewed Eyler about his book How Humans Learn.

[2] The chief problem of the traditional analytical research paper was the sheer complexity of the task, but the complexity combined with what students sensed about the shakiness of their own towers often resulted in a retreat to more familiar modes, essentially summarizing content of others from their secondary sources instead of using those sources to build an original argument. This was a source of great frustration for me as the instructor, and disappointment for the students themselves. who knew that what they were creating was unsatisfactory, but they lacked the metacognitive knowledge to truly understand why.


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