Complex Learning Facilitated Through Simplification
Sharing content with students at simple levels allows them to more quickly grasp the material, and it permits us as teachers to then build up to the complexities and nuances we wish them to know and understand. Of course, scaffolding is the popular ed-speak umbrella term for this type of approach to learning. As a metaphor, I’m sure, it makes the most sense to folks who have been in the building trades. Once the foundation has been established, scaffolding affords workers the ability to leave the ground and to eventually work “up high”.
I became inspired at the idea of teaching lessons with simplified concepts and content when an education prof of mine once told about the way in which he and his college-classmates had scaffolded the most difficult subjects they were studying. In order to pass their exams, they regularly used elementary- and middle school-textbooks to apprehend the basics of what had otherwise been presented to them as particularly sophisticated material. They then augmented what they did by learning relevant, college-level vocabulary. Consequently, and without fail, they performed well in their classes.
It was intriguing to me to realize that complex information could not only be more easily understood when broken down to simple forms, but that this was a valid approach to teaching and learning on all levels. Moreover, it soon became apparent that it was much easier to build directly on students’ well-founded learning than to toss them into the deep-end, so to speak. (O.k., so—I had become a “master of the obvious”, but the scaffolding through simplification approach was compelling!)
It was doubly intriguing later on to realize that my professor (who had advocated this approach) was Spanish/English bilingual as a kid growing up in the U.S. For him, like all students, comprehending the foundational aspects of a given topic would have been critical to the knowledge-building process that ensued. However, if he was a typical English Language Learner, it is likely that when facing new content he wouldn’t have yet acquired the needed vocabulary or concepts in either language. To be successful, he would have had to somehow begin each topic by learning the most basic forms of the material. Evidently, though, by the time he was a university student, he was well versed in a process that had resulted in his academic success. The insights of which, he shared with his students.
Simplifying concepts for students, and then adding in the complex aspects of those concepts later on, i.e., as the learning develops, is a process that we can start with our students now. The advantage we have here is that, instead of hoping students will somehow figure it out or randomly stumble onto it on their own, we can consistently take this understanding into the classroom strategically incorporating it into our lessons.
Postscript Comedy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gjWUiVtldk