While it is most certainly true that learning occurs in the flow of work, it’s also important to recognize the learning leader’s role in ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of learning in that context. Day-to-day activities are often fast-paced and stressful, which can limit their impact as learning catalysts. Savvy learning leaders put practices into play that ensure people experience the value of learning in the flow of work.
The learning sciences give us a number of concepts that can be useful in thinking through how to nurture the kinds of working environments in which learning is well supported. Enter scaffolding.
Borrowed from the construction trades, the term “scaffolding” refers to providing support while a structure is being built. In a learning context, scaffolding describes a strategy by which learning and performance is actively supported by a “knowledgeable other” or additional resources that enable people to perform while they are still learning.
What does it mean to scaffold learning in the flow of work? Here’s what the research literature recommends:
Immerse learners in the full richness and context of work. In the best learning environments, people who are new to a task are not simply observers or an extra pair of hands; they are actually doing productive work that allows them to experience its complexity and nuance.
Manage task assignments so that learners are in an optimal zone for learning. Give people tasks or parts of tasks that are at the edge of their current skills and knowledge base. By working on tasks that test their limits, people must increase their knowledge or skill in order to perform, and they can immediately apply their learning to the work at hand.
Focus learners’ attention on the learning opportunities inherent in the work. Have supervisors and coworkers highlight what can be learned in each situation. For example, articulate why certain activities are particularly important to success; call attention to exemplary work and missed opportunities as they occur, or remind people of actions that they may have overlooked.
Provide specific support for learning in context. Surround people with a variety of learning supports that are accessible at the time of need; these can be people, electronic or physical resources, and learning practices. Encourage people to look for teachable moments when a more experienced person can fill in details, take a moment to teach something, provide coaching, reinforce good work, or offer encouragement.
You also may be able to provide performance support resources that walk learners through what they need to accomplish. The organization can embrace practices that support learning such as after-action reviews, mentoring activities, and so forth. The important feature here is the immediacy of the support so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of work and learning.
Ask questions that prompt learners to reflect on their experiences and articulate their learning. Prompting people to make sense of their experiences does two things. It solidifies learning in the mind, and it provides the opportunity to enrich understanding further or to correct misunderstanding.
Fade out scaffolding as warranted. As people become better able to process their own learning and better equipped to do the job effectively, it’s important to recognize their advances and discontinue providing overt support in the learned skill.
Consider the quote:“There is always challenge between having learners engage with meaningful complex tasks that maximize potential for growth… and providing sufficient support so that learners are neither overwhelmed or under-challenged.” (Keith Sawyer quoted in Reiser and Tabak, 2014, p. 55)
In strategizing learning, learning leaders don’t have to choose between structured training and leaving people to their own devices. There are many other tools and learning tactics falling between those two strategies that we can leverage to help people succeed, and scaffolding learning is one of the more powerful techniques to employ.
Reiser, B.J. & Tabak, I. (2014). Scaffolding and Collins, A. & Kapur, M. (2014). Cognitive Apprenticeship. Both in The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, R. Keith Sawyer, editor. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.