Musing on scaffolding: Why Do We Keep Needing Deadlines?

One of the things about being a Computer Science researcher who is on the way to becoming a Computer Science Education Researcher is the sheer volume of educational literature that you have to read up on. There’s nothing more embarrassing than having an “A-ha!” moment that turns out to have been covered 50 years and the equivalent of saying “Water – when it freezes – becomes this new solid form I call Falkneranium!”

Ahem. So my apologies to all who read my ravings and think “You know, X said that … and a little better, if truth be told.” However, a great way to pick up on other things is to read other people’s blogs because they reinforce and develop your knowledge, as well as giving you links to interesting papers. Even when you’ve seen a concept before, unsurprisingly, watching experts work with that concept can be highly informative.

I was reading Mark Guzdial’s blog some time ago and his post on the Khan Academy’s take on Computer Science appealed to me for a number of reasons, not least for his discussion of scaffolding; in this case, a tutor-guided exploration of a space with students that is based upon modelling, coaching and exploration. Importantly, however, this scaffolding fades over time as the student develops their own expertise and needs our help less. It’s like learning to ride a bike – start with trainer wheels, progress to a running-alongside parent, aspire to free wheeling! (But call a parent if you fall over or it’s too wet to ride home.)

One of my key areas of interest is self-regulation in students – producing students who no longer need me because they are self-aware, reflective, critical thinkers, conscious of how they fit into the discipline and (sufficiently) expert to be able to go out into the world. My thinking around Time Banking is one of the ways that students can become self-regulating – they manage their own time in a mature and aware fashion without me having to waggle a finger at them to get them to do something.

Today, R (postdoc in the  Computer Science Education Research Group) and I were brainstorming ideas for upcoming papers over about a 2 hour period. I love a good brainstorm because, for some time afterwards, ideas and phrases come to me that allow me to really think about what I’m doing. Combining my reading of Mark’s blog and the associated links, especially about the deliberate reduction of scaffolding over time, with my thoughts on time management and pedagogy, I had this thought:

If imposed deadlines have any impact upon the development of student timeliness, why do we continue to need them into the final year of undergraduate and beyond? When do the trainer wheels come off?

Now, of course, the first response is that they are an administrative requirement, a necessary evil, so they are (somehow) exempt from a pedagogical critique. Hmm. For detailed reasons that will go into the paper I’m writing, I don’t really buy that. Yes, every course (and program) has a final administrative requirement. Yes, we need time to mark and return assignments (or to provide feedback on those assignments, depending on the nature of the assessment obviously). But all of the data I have says that not only do the majority of students hand up on the last day (if not later), but that they continue to do so into later years – getting later and later as they progress, rather than earlier and earlier. Our administrative requirement appears to have no pedagogical analogue.

So here is another reason to look at these deadlines, or at least at the way that we impose them in my institution. If an entry test didn’t correlate at all with performance, we’d change it. If a degree turned out students who couldn’t function in the world, industry consultation would pretty smartly suggest that we change it. Yet deadlines, which we accept with little comment most of the time, only appear to work when they are imposed but, over time, appear to show no development of the related skill that they supposedly practice – timeliness. Instead, we appear to enforce compliance and, as we would expect from behavioural training on external factors, we must continue to apply the external stimulus in order to elicit the appropriate compliance.

Scaffolding works. Is it possible to apply a deadline system that also fades out over time as our students become more expert in their own time management?

I have two days of paper writing on Thursday and Friday and ‘m very much looking forward to the further exploration of these ideas, especially as I continue to delve into the deep literature pile that I’ve accumulated!

One Comment on “Musing on scaffolding: Why Do We Keep Needing Deadlines?”

  1. Two comments:

    First, I was sidetracked by your comment about learning to ride a bike, with training wheels as “scaffolding”. Many people have found a different approach to work as well or better—instead of adding training wheels, remove the pedals and lower the seat, so that the kids learn to balance (the essential skill) before they learn to pedal.

    I suppose that people have tried this approach with the various crippled versions of programming languages. My son had a Scheme class that used subsets of the language—he found it irritating when he had a concept but the currently used subset lacked a clean way to express it, though a later subset did. The nested languages that Lego Mindstorms used to use were similarly frustrating. The bicycle equivalent would be wanting to pedal after having sort of gotten the idea of balancing, but having the teacher refuse to put the pedals back on.

    Second, I have seen scaffolding fail in almost exactly the say way that you say deadlines fail. I had students come into a senior/graduate class unable to design simple programs, because all their programming classes had been so heavily scaffolded that they could only write code for which they had very clear specs and a specific data structure and algorithm to implement—they could not address the earlier design problem of choosing data structures and algorithms to implement. I once had a almost an entire cohort with this problem, which is usually isolated to just one or two students, so I investigated further, and found that the cohort had had a single instructor for all their previous programming classes, and that instructor had never withdrawn the scaffolding, even in the supposedly advanced classes.

    In my classes, deadlines serve primarily to make it possible for me to keep up with the feedback—it is much easier for me to test, read, and provide feedback on 20 programs that are addressing the same problem than programs that are each working on a different problem.

    And, let’s face it, in the “real” world almost everything gets done because of a looming deadline, not because we happen to have time to do it.


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