By Roderick Lawrence
What do we mean by “scaffolding” and how is it used in transdisciplinary research?
Scaffolding is a metaphor transferred from building construction and used in pedagogy and teaching methods since the 1970s to assist learning processes. This metaphor has also been applied to multi-stakeholder processes that require collective decision making about complex societal challenges including conflictual situations. In this context scaffolding is used in deliberative processes, identifying those constituents that require facilitation, and selecting the appropriate methods and tools to achieve desired outcomes.
Scaffolding is increasingly recognized as necessary to assist bridge building between people, especially in transdisciplinary research and project implementation about complex situations and persistent problems that have no simple solutions. Scaffolding is required because there is no ideal or universal method for cross-fertilizing different perceptions and values in these cases. Scaffolding acknowledges that tools and methods exist and that they need to be carefully understood and adapted to the situation or problem addressed, and to the specific characteristics of its context, including the group of participants in the research project.
One example of scaffolding in transdisciplinary research and project implementation occurs in addressing differences that may be conflictual. Thomas Jordan (2014) explained that interpersonal dialogue and shared understanding can be facilitated by scaffolding that supports collective thinking and co-action of a diverse group of participants with diverse backgrounds. He listed the advantages of scaffolding according to six key functions (each including several subcomponents, which are not presented here):
- Enabling attention support and group focusing
- Enhancing communication and interpersonal relationships
- Expressing personal attitudes, feelings and promoting group engagement
- Improving awareness and understanding while creating common-ground
- Promoting personal empowerment and mobilizing creativity
- Coordinating decision-making and implementation of desired outcomes.
These are active scaffolding processes. Passive factors (such as the organization of spaces for group discussions), are also important. For example, well-known and documented methods for collaborative action research include:
- Open Space
- World Café
- Research Circles.
Scaffolding denotes prescribing the social and physical characteristics of spaces where members of consortia from different backgrounds meet to discuss subjects of mutual concern. Scaffolding also includes virtual spaces provided by new information and communication technologies that enable contact between the members of consortia when they are not present together.
Scaffolding used to facilitate transdisciplinary research and project implementation should be broader in scope and purpose than a focus on toolboxes (methods and tools) to involve the competences and skills of facilitators. Numerous projects illustrate how facilitators guide deliberative processes involving many participants who do not necessarily share common perceptions, meanings and values. Scaffolding increases our capability to respond effectively to these situations and problems.
What has been your experience in using scaffolding in multi-stakeholder projects? Do you have published cases you would like to share with others?
To find out more:
Lawrence, R. (2020). Creating Built Environments: Bridging Knowledge and Practice Divides. Routledge: London, United Kingdom. (Book details:) https://www.routledge.com/Creating-Built-Environments-Bridging-Knowledge-and-Practice-Divides/Lawrence/p/book/9780815385394
This book builds on my previous blog post Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders and includes analysis and synthesis of numerous transdisciplinary projects that collectively illustrate the advantages and limitations of innovative cases in the broad field of built environments in an era of globalization and urbanization.
Jordan, T. (2014). Deliberative Methods for Complex Issues: A typology of functions that may need scaffolding, Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, 13: 50-71.
Biography: Roderick Lawrence D.Sc. is Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He was awarded a DSc by Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. He has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences since 2009.