Scaffolded Social Learning

Today i want to share a model for Social Learning. It’s at quite a pragmatic level: ‘what do we do about it?‘, rather than an esoteric discussion of ‘what does social mean?‘. I’m presenting a view of Scaffolded Social Learning: a way of balancing the structure and defined outcomes of formal learning with the collaborative, co-creative and ‘sense making‘ functions of Social. Here it is at the most simple level:

Scaffolded Social Learning Elements

There are two basic components of a scaffolded social learning solution: bubbles and boxes

Scaffolded Social Learning is built around two types of components: formal elements (‘boxes‘) and ‘bubbles‘ of social. Boxes are formal, bubbles are social. At the boundary between each, there is a gateway. The bubbles are co-creative, community spaces, places where we can feed out questions, case studies, activities and exercises that are carried out over time and within communities. The boxes are formally defined learning: maybe eLearning, classroom or defined resources. The overall arrangement is defined by an overarching narrative: it is, after all, still semi formal learning, with a defined outcome in terms of skills and capability, not an entirely free form and unstructured space.

This type of scaffolded solution is only one of a range of approaches we could choose to take: we may want totally formal experiences, or totally social one. This is not intended as a solution for everything, but rather as a model of how we design in that middle space.

But enough of the disclaimers: this is what Social Learning is about:

Scaffolded Social Learning - finding meaning

We create a series of spaces (and grant appropriate permissions) that people can work their way through. Not every journey is the same: some people do different things, but some elements may be defined as common for everyone. Instead of us creating one linear story, with all our materials sat along the route, we define a story, but with different resources and spaces to find our way through. Some of these are more traditional didactic resources (say an hour of eLearning or a workshop), others are semi formal (say a structured case study that you work through in your community). Some are formal assessments (like a test or scenario you must pass), others are social (like creating a personal narrative around your takeaways from a community conversation). Together, it provides a coherent and semi structured learning experience.

Let’s look in more detail:

Scaffolded Social Learning - the overarching narrative

A scaffolded Social Learning solution will include both bubbles and boxes, a combination of formal and social spaces

Our experience of learning in this way is that we start with a structured space, maybe an introduction, where we set the context (if you are interested in Learning Methodology and a detailed exploration, you can find my book on the subject here). After this, we launch into a community space with structured activities. For example, in the first bubble, we may work through six structured questions, discussing each in the community and co-creating a narrative around it.

From here, we enter a new formal space, maybe via an assessment (in this case, a group narrative or blog). In the formal space, we may carry out role-plays to rehearse particular skills, or we may discuss the narratives together. Crucially, under this model, we try not to use the formal (and therefore expensive and time consuming) parts for pure knowledge transfer: instead, they are opportunities to question, build vocabulary and practice, with feedback. From here (possibly via another accreditation gateway, we launch into another bubble, perhaps this time where we try to apply the learning and share our experience with the community. Again, it’s semi structured, but the content of the discussion is generated by the community.

So what are we trying to achieve? It’s about creating meaning: in the Social Age, knowledge is no longer enough, instead, our ability to create meaning is what counts. In the formal spaces, we are rehearsing, sharing, narrating our progress. In the bubbles, we are co-creating and ‘sense making‘. The ‘sense making’ function of communities sits at the heart of Social Learning. It’s the ways we challenge and support each other as we work out what rings true and, crucially, what we can do about it and with it. It’s about learning and taking action, out in the real world. Under a scaffolded Social Learning approach, we are finding ways to let learners create meaning and share it, within their own reality: the story you build will be different from the one i build, we will use different language, but still within an overall structure that is shared.

If you’re interested in Social Learning theory and design, you can contact me for a free copy of my book ‘Exploring the World of Social Learning‘.

If you are interested in how to design effective learning, you can contact me here to get a free copy of my book on Learning Methodology.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Learning, Learning Design, Learning Methodology, Social Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Scaffolded Social Learning

  1. Phil Antonelli says:

    This sounds very much like a blended learning program with discussion threads and formal learning activities. I find this works in semi-synchronous learning programs (online grad school courses) with a clearly defined beginning and end. However, I am struggling to make it succeed in asynchronous social learning environments where the injection of formal elements just kills the democratic experience.
    How do you move from the strategic –boxes and bubbles– to the tactical elements within that make this work? I like your theories about telling stories, but in the social milieu stories are highly personal, how does one facilitate a story in a way that encourages the individual and the crowd to take ownership?

    • julianstodd says:

      Hi Phil, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts here: yes, i think you could use a scaffolded approach very well within a blended learning solution (at heart, i think all learning should be blended). In this article, i’m really trying to just make some very concrete suggestions how we can structure the social part.

      I think the real nuance is that in blended, we often see social spaces deployed, but just to sit alongside the formal learning. By breaking it down into discrete sections and also structuring each one, it can drive up effectiveness.

      Your point about the choreography is key: how we move through it. I’ve written some pieces around this, based on one model of community management and one of moderation.

      The community piece is around ‘forming’, ‘guiding’ and ‘narrating’, and may address some of those points. Finally, storytelling: well, i favour a model of 3 levels in narrative. Personal, co-created and organisational. You’ll also find a load of other pieces around ‘stories’ if you look on the blog.

      But you clearly have great experience around this – would love to share some stories sometime! Get in touch 🙂

      • Phil Antonelli says:

        Julian, Thanks for sharing your wisdom and insight — it is a great gift you have given to those of us who are interested in this subject…and your artwork is pretty sweet too! You have given me lots to ponder here and in the links you provided. It would be be nice to set aside some time to chat if possible.

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  8. Julian! Great post as usual, and I agree with Phill your artwork is something that really makes me feel anticipation for your posts 🙂
    I am thinking about something related to scaffolding but in my case I am interested in coming with a scaffolding structure for supporting people when building their personal learning environment (PLE). I work with young students in a university and I can see how they just avoid to get into this messy wild web and find out how they can benefit from it.
    Thank you for sharing. Generosity is one of those virtues that I admire most.

  9. David Hurst says:

    Interesting article. I wrote what I think is one of the first articles using the “boxes” and “bubbles” analogy thirty years ago and this is the first time that I have seen the analogy used since. I got the original idea from Taoism and it has now taken me into ecology. See:

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