Learner perceptions of scaffolding in supporting critical thinking

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Learner perceptions of scaffolding in supporting critical thinking
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  Journal of Computing in Higher Education Fall 2005, Vol. 17(1 ), 17-42. Learner Perceptions of Scaffolding in Supporting Critical Thinking Priya Sharma Instructional Systems Program The Pennsylvania State University Michael Hannafin Learning and Performance Support Laboratory University of Georgia ABSTRACT CAFFOLDING has proven an especially interesting and prom- ising area for postsecondary teaching and learning practices. Particular interest has emerged in scaffolding student learning in technology-enhanced environments--especially those designed to promote critical thinking. This study examined participant perceptions and use of scaffolding in an online course focused on facilitating the development of critical thinking in instructional design. Findings indicated that use of scaffolding evolved from externally directed to internally relevant assimilation. The realization of personal utility emerged as the most prominent trigger for both improved learner perceptions and scaffolding use. Research and practical implications for the design of scaffolding are provided. (Keywords: scaffolding, online instruction, technology-mediated learning, instructional design, higher education) 17  LE RNER PERCEPTIONS OF SC FFOLDING INTRODUCTION H IGHER EDUCATION has traditionally been considered as a venue in which students engage in opportunities that culti- vate higher order thinking skills, including critical thinking, transformational learning, and lifelong-learning skills (Barnett, 1990; Brockbank & McGill, 1998). One recent emphasis involves facilitat- ing higher-order thinking skills within technology-based learning environments (Bacig, Evans, & Larmouth 1991; Bullen, 1998; DeLoach & Greenlaw, 1999; Herrington & Oliver, 1999); specifically, within some of these environments, scaffolding has been used to inculcate critical thinking. During scaffolded interactions, an expert supports a novice in executing a complex task beyond the scope of the novice's own expertise (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). The efficacy of scaf- folding has been defined by the quality of dialogue between expert and novice about the learning goal and the process of goal achieve- ment (Rogoff, 1998; Wertsch, 1984), as well as by the expert's pedagogical and strategic knowledge in supporting a learner's devel- opmental and unique understanding (Lepper, Drake, & O'Donnell- Johnson, 1997). Adapting such interactions to learning environments that are exclusively or primarily technology-based like an online course has proven pedagogically and strategically challenging. To be effective, scaffolding must be guided by an expert's understanding of how and when a novice's higher order thinking can be most appropriately supported (Lin, Hmelo, Kinzer, & Secules, t999; McLoughlin, 1999). The expert component, though important, comprises only part of the interaction; the other, arguably more important component for post- secondary application, is the learners' understanding and appropria- tion of scaffolding for their learning. In this study, we describe the role of scaffolding and its applications for supporting critical thinking in postsecondary settings and present the findings of a qualitative study examining learners' perceptions and use of scaffolding to support critical thinking within a graduate-level online course. 18  Sharma and Hannafin DELINEATING THE SCAFFOLDING INTERACTION CAFFOLDING was first defined as a process by which an expert supports a learner in accomplishing a task beyond the learner's individual capabilities and then gradually fades that support as the learner becomes more competent (Wood et al., 1976). Although srcinally studied as a way to support the learning of very young children, scaffolding has since been employed in a variety of contexts and for learners of varied ages, including those in higher education. Scaffolding has been used effectively for supporting the learning of mathematics (Schoenfeld, 1991), statistics (Kao & Lehman, 1997), argumentation in economics (Cho & Jonassen, 2002), and problem solving (Ge & Land, 2003). Scaffolding definitions and implementa- tions vary according to content, philosophies, and learner profiles in each individual context. In general, however, successful scaffolding is characterized by both the expert's use of appropriate techniques to support the development of specific skills and on student receptivity (Applebee & Langer, 1983; Bliss, Askew, & Macrae, 1996; Hogan & Pressley, 1997). Scaffolding can be further defined by the expert's role, the learner's role, and the format of interaction between the expert and learner. Bruner (1981) contends that the expert's role in scaffolding is to reduce the degrees of freedom available to a learner for task execution and to narrow the focus of the activity to reduce learner frustration. Tharp and Gallimore (1988) suggest that the learner's goal within the scaffolding interaction is to achieve metacognitive control of learning. Thus, the learner initially performs an activity accompa- nied by the expert's external "speech." However, as scaffolding fades, the speech becomes internal--a dialogue with self, in some sense-- and the learner is able to regulate learning and processes without continued external support. Wertsch (1984) suggested that the inter- action between expert and learner be defined by three primary theo- retical constructs: situation definition, intersubjectivity, and semiotic mediation. In practice, these constructs translate into three activities: 19  LE RNER PERCEPTIONS OF SC FFOLDING clearly establishing the goal of the activity at the beginning, continu- ously negotiating and refining the goal, and using support and com- munication strategies that enable both learner and expert to reach the goal. Wertsch posits that extended dialogue during this process is critical for a good scaffolding interaction. Based on these constructs, scaffolding enables expert support so the learner can focus on impor- tant tasks and concepts, while fading support to ensure that learners regulate their thinking and actions independently while learning. SCAFFOLDING CRITICAL THINKING C RITICAL THINKING is a higher-order reasoning skill asso- ciated with the ability to think rationally, to evaluate actions and beliefs according to certain criteria, and to correct actions or beliefs based on such evaluation (Ennis, 1985a; Lipman, 199I; McPeck, 1981). Generally, critical thinking instruction focuses on teaching how to think rather than what to think (Beyer, 1997; Ennis, 1985b). Paul (1990), for example, lists the multiple facets that define critical thinking as "the art of thinking about your thinking" (p. 32). Similarly, Kuhn (1999) proposed that critical thinking skills are more metacognitive than cognitive. Various strategies have been suggested for developing and scaffolding critical thinking skills, including modeling, externalizing reflection and metacognition, and Socratic questioning (Beyer, 1997; Paul, 1993). Each strategy has different implications for expert and novice performance within the learning context. For example, Beyer (1997) defined modeling as comprising two related actions-executing a cognitive operation step-by-step while simultaneously explaining the major rules or steps of the procedure. In a developmental context, modeling supports critical thinking skills among novices in that it provides an overt mechanism for guiding patterns of thought. For example, Schoenfeld (1991) scaffolded college students' ability to 20  Sharma and Hannafin "think like mathematicians" by modeling and explicating his thinking when confronted by a mathematical problem. Externalizing metacognitive processes involves asking learners to reflect on and identify their reasoning processes and its effect on their learning and decisions. Such metacognitive exploration allows learn- ers to become more aware of their learning patterns and styles, to better manage their learning, to select appropriate strategies, and to make informed choices (Brookfield, 1986). Perkins, Farrady, and Bushey (1991) used a similar scaffolding strategy to encourage gradu- ate students' to construct arguments supporting their position within an ill-structured problem context. Socratic questioning has the express purpose of exposing the logic of one's thoughts; it is not focused as much on eliciting information as on prompting reflective analysis (Paul, 1990). Brookfield's (1986) critical questioning approach, where learners are encouraged to become self-questioners and critically reflective independent of the teacher, is consistent with scaffolding's intent to initially provide then gradually fade support to promote learner au- tonomy. SCAFFOLDING HIGHER-ORDER THINKING IN TECHNOLOGY-MEDIATED POSTSECONDARY ENVIRONMENTS W ITHIN HIGHER EDUCATION, SCAFFOLDING has been integrated into technology-mediated environments to sup- port higher-order thinking skills such as argumentation (Cho & Jonassen, 2002), learning of statistics (Kao & Lehman, 1997), and critical thinking within case based learning (Bonk, Angeli, Malikowski, & Supplee, 2001). In most cases, real-time or dynamic scaffolding is provided by an expert--an instructor, peer, or other subject matter expert--via a communication tool. Static or fixed scaffolding pro- vides standard elements of guidance without any customization: Thus, all students receive the same level and quality of scaffolding instruc- 21
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