November 18th, 2019

Scaffolding: How the Chicken Who Crossed the Road Developed New Knowledge


Chickens cross black and white road

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.

Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide.

As experts in our field, it is easy to become frustrated with students’ relative lack of knowledge or abilities. The lesson offered from this pair of jokes is that with a little scaffolding, new knowledge and new abilities are more easily developed.

One of my roles as a faculty member is to train undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants, and I often hear these peer teachers say, “I don’t want to spoon-feed students the answers,” and “No one asked any questions at the study session, so I let them go home.”  These sentiments are often echoed by faculty. While this frustration is understandable, it is not helpful to assume that lack of participation, questioning, knowledge, and/or skills reflect lack of student motivation. (The students did come to the study session, after all.) We can choose to plant our feet in our ivory towers and bemoan the fact that students aren’t scaling the walls to meet us, justifying our staunch and sedentary position as “maintaining high standards.” Or, we can consider that students aren’t scaling the walls because we have not provided them the necessary scaffolding to climb to where we are.

I believe my job is to put on my grappling gear, climb out my tower window down to where the students are, and scaffold their way up the tower. This is not a new idea; it is based on Bruner’s scaffolding theory of learning and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, which is the distance between what a learner can do by herself and what can be achieved with the support of an instructor. The main premise of scaffolding is that instructors alter the level of support they provide students, depending on students’ current cognitive abilities and cognitive potential. Instructional scaffolding uses strategies to help students bridge the gap between where they are to the level we want them to reach.

An important distinction between scaffolding and ‘spoon-feeding’ is that we are not doing the climbing for the students, but we are willing to climb beside the student, making each step of the climbing/learning explicit. If I ask students, “Why did the chicken cross the playground?” they rarely know the answer. If I precede that joke with the classic version, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and then ask the playground version, I have reminded them of what they already know—the answer, “To get to the other side.” This can be used as a bridge to develop their response to the newer, harder joke.  Analogical reasoning is one of our most fundamental cognitive processes (e.g., Gentner, 2012), and our language is replete with terms that allow us to express the relationship between ideas (e.g., but, and, however, beside, above, around, etc.). Scaffolding simply provides explicit examples of how to build analogies and express the relationships that we are cognitively predisposed toward.

Fortunately, numerous effective scaffolding techniques have been developed, including creating advanced organizers, modeling the desired behavior, providing finished examples, drawing concept maps, and stating verbal prompts. They are customizable to every level of student mastery and to every discipline. They can be applied with more hands-off, constructivist teaching approaches, such as when our goal is for students to apply skills in new settings on their own, and in more instructor-centered approaches, and when we need to convey basic content. A particular example I find useful is explicit scaffolding of reading strategies. Budgeting a mere five minutes per week to model what specific behaviors I expect students to do when reading empirical articles (i.e., How do I annotate when reading? Where do I find the main point?) results in higher student compliance for reading, higher reading comprehension, and more effective class discussions.

Chances are you have colleagues willing to share their resources and provide you the scaffolding you need. Don’t be chicken; cross the road and give it a try.

Bio: Kristin Ritchey is an Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Ball State University, where she earned the university’s Excellence in Teaching award. She is a cognitive psychologist and researches reading comprehension and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

If you’d like to contribute your own joke and essay for consideration in the “Jokes as Parables for Teaching and Learning” series, contact Professor Dom Caristi at Ball State: