I was trying to think of a good term for the opposite of scaffolding, and after rereading some good ol’ Richard Dawkins (via Dan Dennett) this is the term that I think best describes what I was thinking of.

So if scaffolding means we want our learners to understand something, and in order to facilitate that understanding we use some kind of delivery mechanism or contrivance to ensure it makes it into their brains and finds a home there, then what do you call it when you just hurl information at them without trying to make it brain-friendly?

I think skyhooking is a good candidate as a term.  In philosopher Dan Dennett’s formulation, skyhooks are like deus ex machina explanations for natural phenomena, as opposed to cranes which have firm grounding in science and the natural world.  Basically, a crane is a sound explanation (like natural selection), and a skyhook is a magical one (like divine creation).  I mean to coopt this terminology for language teaching, as with Salieri and the uncanny valley.

If you’re skyhooking in class, instead of building up to a point or relating it to points you know your learners already understand (i.e., scaffolding), you’re just dropping material down from the heavens and stacking it higher and higher with no regard for stability or durability.  What you build by skyhooking, for instance a list of sentences in the L2 memorized for a quiz, may be impressively tall but it will topple as soon as your learners stand up from their seats at the end of class.

I have heard of a few language classes where the teacher thought he or she was simply doing the responsible thing by moving through the syllabus regardless of whether the students could use, comprehend, or even comprehend whether or not they comprehended the material in the last unit.  When this happens students can get quite demoralized as they understand less and less each week.  Each new item has even less foundation to stand on and learning material ends up scattered strewn about the earth to be swept out to sea at next high tide.

Not driven firmly into the ground like this metaphor!

I believe most Japanese students’ experience of English from the end of JHS on are one extended skyhooking session.  I’ve seen plenty of HS students on trains with their 英単語 books (with the red plastic thingies) “reviewing” words like discontented that I know they know they have no plans to ever use or even remember in a week.  What seems to comprise studying for these students is actually scrambling to build for themselves enough foundation in their own minds for these atomized language items.  I fear this DIY-scaffolding is the situation for many other subjects as well.

(One final note: I’m not endorsing a grammatical syllabus with these examples, or saying conversely that all grammatical syllabi can’t help but skyhook in language items, but in my experience a grammatical syllabus makes skyhooking very tempting.)

3 thoughts on “Skyhooking

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