Interpretive Struggle VS. Scaffolding


While at this past year’s NCTE conference, I witnessed a collision of theory and practice that forced me to think about my teaching and what I’d been reading in my doctoral classes.

I imagine most teachers and educators at all levels would agree that scaffolding is an essential process for student growth in understanding and skills, yet when reading through a Sheridan Blau text, The Literature Workshop, this fall, I found myself leaning strongly to the possible benefits of having students’ struggle more often through interpretation and making meaning of what they read for themselves. To a large degree, I was on fire for Blau’s philosophy for looking at literature and the writing about literature for that matter. His anecdotes drew a very nice picture of the benefits of struggling through a text with refrained guidance from a teacher. Sometimes these pictures were too nice, and I was certainly skeptical of what at first read like a victory narrative, but even Blau eventually comments on the imperfection of his philosophy and that detours do happen despite best intentions. Still, I was rethinking my own philosophy of teaching literature, and I immediately started to experiment with his ideas in my own classroom. (More on this in future posts!)

Then in Boston at NCTE I witnessed a discussion led primarily by Michael W. Smith and Jeff Wilhelm on the vital nature of scaffolding in an ELA classroom. Their argument was compelling and abundant in examples of why scaffolding a student’s understanding and interpretation of text is essential to that child’s growth. Wilhelm consistently used examples that audience could interpret meaning from and used them as a way for us to understand that we can only make such interpretations through our scaffolded experiences. Without something to attach meaning to, essentially, any new, difficult text is meaningless, frustrating, and in turn easily discounted by many. Please bear in mind that this my own paraphrasing of the argument; Wilhelm and Smith both did a tremendous job accounting for why we cannot simply hand something to a student to read and say ‘go’ while not expecting there to be frustrations on the end of the student and the teacher. I agreed with many of their points, but I also immediately thought about what I had been reading in Blau’s book.

That was the beauty of the session though. Blau was the commentator for the session–the number one guy who was there to provide a rebuttal to the argument. His counterargument was as anyone familiar with his work would expect. His experience and research had proven, at least to him, that it is necessary for students to struggle with text in order to grow, to become analytic, to be true interpreters of text. It was ultimately an amicable discussion.

I left that room, gears turning, thinking that the truth in all of this is somewhere in the middle. Honestly, I thought to myself that it almost entirely depends on the student, or at least the class. Both sides of the argument at the end of the session appeared to concede that it can’t be entirely one way or the other, but I think educators and policy-makers often misinterpret the research these scholars are doing and will use it to justify a one-size-fits-all model. Why? Because it feels easy; if feels safe; and in some cases, it feels like the sexy, buzzworthy choice. As posited in a previous post, we have a tendency to allow the pendulum in education to swing entirely one way or the other but never allow it to rest in the proverbial ‘middle’. This has burned us more than once, including myself.

The truth I’m coming upon is that scaffolding is as essential as most claim it to be, but without introducing struggle from time to time, or certainly after doing some scaffolding, a student will simply be a vessel of a teacher’s own (and often times biased) knowledge never developing a mind of his or her own, never seeing a text from a different lens, never appreciating their own interpretation, never understanding the power of their own analytic intellect.

Scaffolding versus interpretive struggle? How about we use both to complement each other?


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