10 Techniques for Scaffolded Social Learning

I recently presented a model for the design of Scaffolded Social Learning: it’s a way of combining both formal and co-created components into one coherent learning narrative. The formal elements will be things like workshops, eLearning, mobile materials, assessments, podcasts, reading and so on. The co-created elements are those things that we do within our communities: it’s the ‘sense making’ activity, but i thought it would be worth expanding exactly what this could look like.

10 aspects of Scaffolded Social

There’s a risk that we just ask people to ‘talk about stuff’, which is effectively just making the ‘social’ part a bolt on solution, not a truly scaffolded approach.

In this article, i want to explore ten facets of the co-created component. We will look at ‘curation’, uncovering how we can use this activity in the learning design, then ‘interpreation’, which is where we ask people to take materials and contextualise them. We will look at how to use ‘diagnostics’, deconstructing situations within the community to learn, then the ‘sense making’ process itself, including the roles we take. ‘Storytelling’ follows naturally, where we look at the three levels of storytelling (personal, co-created and organisational). Analysis is where we ask the community to deal with multiple date sets and do something with them based on their analysis. ‘Comparison’ is about understanding how other groups do the same thing differently. We will look at how ‘critique’ can be a valuable skill, as can wider ‘challenge’ and, of course, ‘support’. Finally, ‘perspective’, what it is and how we get it.

My aim here is to explore a little about these ten techniques so that we can utilise them to design our Scaffolded Social Learning sections to greater effect, to truly help people be more effective.

I’ve written widely about ‘Curation’ before, specifically in relation to Social Leadership (there’s a whole chapter in the book about it), but let’s revisit it here, specifically in the context of Social Learning. In simple terms, curation is an active process of finding stuff out, of building a collection. Typically it’s not random: we tend to curate in ‘sets’, for example, on Pinterest Boards, or bookmark tabs. We tend to curate our bookshelves to include ‘gardening’, ‘cooking’, ‘thrillers’ and ‘coffee table’ books. It’s not accidental: our bookshelves are curated to meet our interests, both from our past and our present.

In Social Learning communities, we typically use ‘curatorial’ activities to ask people to go out of the community space and bring something back: maybe a supporting article, piece of inspiration or link, but of course, it doesn’t have to be written. We could ask them to bring drawings, music or, indeed, actual objects (after all, in a Scaffolded Social Learning approach, we use physical spaces too).

The perils of curation are many: it’s a very personal activity. If you share a lot of cat pictures, you’ll be judged. Similarly, if you share some excellent and relevant texts, you’ll be judged on that too. We can curate materials, but we also curate our reputation: best to ensure we put some care and attention into it.

How would we use this? Ask delegates to go and find material that supports their definition or perspective on a problem: if we are looking at leadership, don’t say what we think great leadership is, ask them to bring examples or collections.

It’s hard to look at ‘curation’ without talking about ‘interpretation’ as a distinct but closely related activity. Once we have found something relevant, we need to interpret it for the audience: instead of sharing everything with everyone, without context, what we are aiming for is to share small numbers of highly relevant things with strong interpretation. For example, it’s one thing for someone to bring an article to the group talking about ‘Women in Boardroom Positions’, quite another for them to interpret it to give their perspective and make it relevant for both your organisation and group. This doesn’t need to be an essay: for example, if the average number of women on a Board was 20%, we could provide interpretation by sharing that on our board it’s 40%, but that puts us in a minority, and still not equal. Interpretation is about adding a layer of context, but also a layer of challenge or support.

The NET Model - Narration - Curation

Curation is one component of the NET model of Social Leadership. It’s about Discovery, Perception and Interpretation

Interpretation is always subjective, but that’s ok: make your subjectivity count. It’s part of how you build your reputation within the community. Interpretation is a skill, it’s something we get better at when we rehearse it and practice with feedback.

How would we use this? We could ask people to bring an image that represents a company that they admire: alongside the image, we ask them to explain why. To contextualise that image to the story we are sharing. Or we could ask people to bring an article to the group about a project that they’ve read about that was successful: for the interpretation, we may simply ask them to share it with a particular group within our community to whom it’s relevant and explain why. We can tie this into ‘sense making’ later, where we may bring something to the group and ask the whole group to interpret it together. A shared understanding.

When we look at the ‘Diagnostic’ skill, we are wanting people to take something we give them and figure out what to do about it. Diagnostics can be a matter of intuition, but equally it can be process based. When we do this within a Social Learning community, we are not just looking for them to diagnose the situation: we want them to explain what they are seeing and why they are taking the decision they are taking. It’s the underlying thought process that we are interested in as much as the action taken.

Different diagnostic processes will play out in different organisations, but if we don’t actually provide guidance on building this skill, we are just relying on native ‘smarts’, which is ok, but not as good a strategy as building this capability: agility is found upon the ability to diagnose, frame problems, work on solutions, repeat and solve. Agility is the only thing that will keep an organisation afloat in the Social Age.


How would we use this? We could show a video or case study and ask the community to figure out what they would have done, narrating their thinking as they go. We are looking for the things they agree with and the points they differ on (which is where the underlying reasoning comes in). We are not looking for a case study where everyone does the same thing: instead, we should use subtle ‘real world’ case studies where there are multiple possible paths forward, much as there tend to be in real life…. Diagnosis can be both individual and group, but in both cases should include the reasoning behind it.

Whilst we talk about ‘Sense making’ as everything we do within communities, it’s an activity in itself. Sense making is the cut and thrust of the community linking abstract knowledge to everyday reality. It’s really where we translate the abstract knowledge into everyday activity. The skill here builds off ‘interpretation’, but it’s also about knowing what to keep and what to discard. We can view it as a pruning or editing function, indeed, ‘tempo’, ‘refinement’ and ‘editing’ are three specific elements we look at within communities. Helping to maintain momentum and figure it out.


Sense making is not all that different from old school debating techniques: to operate effectively within community we need to respect and reflect on other views. Whilst the outputs are individual, the discussions are for the community, so our ability to persuade, influence, contextualise and refine our story is valuable. If we are good at ‘interpretation’ and, indeed, ‘curate’ great content into the community, we may have a louder voice in the sense making process.

Diversity is essential in sense making, not just in terms of gender, race or culture, but of thinking. If an organisation is not diverse and equal, they can’t truly ‘sense make’ effectively, because they will lack the breadth of perspectives, they will lack the range of stories needed. It’s another payback for being fair and equal: you become more effective!

How would we use this? We ask groups to conduct specific ‘sense making’ activities and tie it into their storytelling: work out what you think of this, and why you think that, then narrate it. Sense making isn’t just a formal request though: in a healthy community, it’s the individuals who bring challenges to the group. They bring them in expectation of both challenge and support. It’s a key way we build our personal social capital and reputation: by supporting others in this way.

You’ll see how this story is progressing: ‘Storytelling’ is essential. It’s one thing to share by volume or through formal channels, but quite another to do it by reputation and magnetism. We are looking to develop the skills for creating and sharing magnetic stories, stories that are amplified by the community. Again, i’ve written widely about storytelling for Social Learning and Leadership, but in this context, i want us to think about how we engineer it into the Scaffolded Social Learning approach.

Storytelling styles

How would we use this? We would set individual and co-created group storytelling exercises. Asking people to diarise and journal their own unfolding understanding, whilst also getting groups or cohorts to do the same. Once we have them, we can create the organisational meta narrative over all these individual stories. In a truly social organisation: there is a recognition that the ‘real’ meaning will be co-created in this way. It’s not about the organisation owning the story anymore.

Analysis’ is similar to ‘sense making’, except we ask them to do it within a rigid framework: maybe a matrix where we structure the thought process. In that context, the framework will vary by subject and organisation. To give you an example, i’m working on a Leadership programme at the moment where we are carrying out a structured analytical activity: there are four quadrants, in the first we ask ‘where do you see exceptional leadership‘, in the second we capture ‘what does that enable them to do’, in the third we ask them to quantify how that leadership differs from what we have here, then finally we ask what they would do if they had leadership that good.

This lead into the whole conversation about how we get there (a story that we again co-create). In theory, the group could decide that they already work in the best organisation: that’s their prerogative, but in no sense are we telling them what to think. Social Learning is about emergent reality from the group. Not about imposing our story on them.

How would we use this? We, one example, as above, is to structure a sense making conversation, but we could also use it in more of an engineering process concept, to guide analytics through gateways to diagnose problems. For example, we could start by a structured analysis of environment, then analyse team, then finally process, and see what this sequential and structured analysis unearths.

When we look at ‘Comparative’ activities, we are moving outside our immediate community to look at how what we are doing compares to others: it’s change of perspective, which we will explore later too. We may be asking people to look at similar roles or industries, or to look at what parallel cohorts in their own organisation are doing. It’s about comparing our emerging reality with other groups and, possibly, creating shared spaces to continue that narrative on an ongoing basis.

How would we use this? We can ask different cohorts on a management programme to interact in a shared space: we could ask one person from each cohort (the nominated storyteller) to share their view, then we can ‘sense make’ against what the other cohorts share.

Use of ‘Critique’ in detail is valuable, especially when we are in the later stages of learning and are in an application spaces. Asking community members to critique the execution of new learning by others provides both challenge and support, as well as supporting high engagement. Critique can be individual or group based or, indeed, applied to self. We can also use Critique on third part projects or other areas of our business. It’s not about being critical, but it’s very much about critical thinking and analysis which, i hesitate to say, are often missing internally.

How would we use this? During the application of new learning, which is often later in the project, we may set some ‘critique’ gateways in lieu of formal assessment, asking the individuals to bring their interpretation back to the community. It has to be handled well, with clear rules of engagement, but done right, it’s valuable.

Whilst it probably feels that it goes without saying that communities provide ‘Challenge’, it’s worth noting that they will only do so if the permissions are right. People will generally say what you want to hear, especially if you rule through hierarchy or positional authority. True challenge should be constructive and evidence based. We can engineer this in.

How would we use this? We could set up pairs to challenge the stories of application that are bought back to the community. Or we could ask individuals to take a rotating position of challenging the whole group: this democratisation of challenge can work well in mixed groups that include formal leaders. We are freeing up the conversation.

Similar to ‘Challenge’ above, we can’t count on ‘Support’ unless we engineer it in. Part of this is the responsibility of the Community Manager and organisation, but part of it is about building our own Social Capital (again, you can read that at more length in the Social Leadership Handbook), through helping others. Kindness, humility and fairness are all differentiating behaviours in the Social Age.

How would we use this? We could set up formal ‘support’ relationships, using mentoring or coaching approaches, or we could train the types of behaviour that work well e.g. active listening, helping people reflect, changing perspective. Again, we shouldn’t leave ‘support’ to accident. Sometimes it needs to be pretty specifically engaged.

So finally we come to ‘Perspective’, which is incredibly valuable. Changing perspective may be about changing roles, changing knowledge or feeling different application. We can play with perspective: for example, instead of asking people to introduce themselves, ask them to introduce someone else: this gives a different permission to talk, saying things the individual could never say about themselves.

We can change perspective in groups, asking them to take different roles in ‘sense making’, for example, being the Narrator, or welcoming newcomers. Typically in social learning communities, roles are more fluid anyway: indeed, if they are not, we need to think about mixing up the community again!

How would we use this? We can use it in the design of collaborative exercises to deliberately change roles when roleplaying or rehearsing. We can ask broad ranges of people to join the community, instead of structuring them by division or department. It is, after all, the age of the generalist. Broader perspectives are extremely valuable.

So there you go: ten elements we can build into Scaffolded Social Learning design. It’s not exhaustive, but it will take us a long way from ‘go and talk about this’. The stronger our design, the better our choreography, the more effective the learning will be because it’s more applied and refined.

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.
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23 Responses to 10 Techniques for Scaffolded Social Learning

  1. Pingback: 10 Techniques for Scaffolded Social Learning | ...

  2. Hi Julian, this I love: “Social Learning is about emergent reality from the group. Not about imposing our story on them.” Only the other day I was pondering on the unnecessary isolation people feel in companies (or schools, as I focus on) when a story is defined for the group by the appointed leaders and all are expected to line-up behind the defined ethos. This seems to be fueled by the much loved ideas of ‘buy-in’ at interview and the importance of a ‘unified company culture’. Your articles expertly guides communities towards a model for social learning. Great read!

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  13. Reblogged this on Gamification, E-Learning and commented:
    There’s a risk that we just ask people to ‘talk about stuff’, which is effectively just making the ‘social’ part a bolt on solution, not a truly scaffolded approach.

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