Stories to scaffold creative learning

(part of the Fall 2013 Collaborative Explorations: Creative Thinking for All series)

A Collaborative Exploration (CE) that explores story-telling and scaffolding in relation to each other and to creative learning.


It is said that humans are a story-telling animal. At the very least, we are often moved by stories, especially our own. Yet stories are shaped by conventional structures or sequences, such as the self-making or destiny of the central subject or hero. What would it mean for stories to emphasize "scaffolding"—the supports that other people contribute to our learning, seeing new paths, and not simply continuing along previous lines? In short, what lessons can be drawn about how to foster or support creative learning--in oneself and in others--through telling alternative kinds of stories?

If you want to appreciate why story-telling and scaffolding could be a concern in promoting creative learning, consider the passages and sources in the box below. But, if the broad topic of stories to scaffold creative learning is enough for you to be interested, feel free to see what a Collaborative Exploration entails and apply.

A colleague said recently that story-telling is a form of scaffolding. To develop this idea, we need to explore what story-telling is--or could be; ditto for scaffolding; then link them together.

According to the Soviet theorist of folktales, Propp, story-telling adopts familiar structures, in which,
  • the story... often begins in a state of equilibrium..., where we find the hero leading a relatively safe and untroubled existence [but] somehow different... Whether by choice or compulsion, the hero is eventually dislodged from [their] home... This turning point is often depicted as the beginning of a journey or adventure...Having departed, the hero moves in a new realm where [they] must survive a series of tests... imposed either by the environment... or by qualities of [their] own character... [T]he tests are specifically designed... to bring out the human in the hero. As in folktales and myths, this transformation depends on a beneficent power or "donor." The appearance of the donor... is thus crucial to the outcome of the story.... [T]he hero initially suffers from some deficiency, usually physical, and it is often in nonphysical form that the donor appears... Still [they are] not finished, for, to prove [their] humanity, the hero must be tested again... Yet there is a final irony, as in many myths. Again and again we hear how a hero, having accomplished great deeds, succumbs to pride or hubris and is destroyed (Landau 1984; see also

Scaffolding and creative learning
We have all seen tubular scaffolding used in construction or renovation. The "scaffolding" metaphor makes us think, therefore, of someone starting with a final structure in mind and providing the workers a reliable, safe arrangement of physical elements they can use to complete the structure. In education scaffolding has been used to refer to an analogous arrangement of elements (more conceptual and procedural than physical) that allow students to come to understand the relevant ideas and end up proficient in the practices. But scaffolding has other connotations that might be fruitful to explore. For example, if we think about the maintenance of our bones, a scaffold could connote a dynamic structure with components that are constantly replenished with new materials, doing so, moreover, in ways that maintain its integrity as a structure while adapting to changes in its contexts (like new stresses strengthening the bones) and, in turn, generating possibilities not seen or experienced before.

Suppose we focus on the potential of everyone for creative learning. (Use of this term invites elaboration, but for now let it simply point to generation of alternative ideas, connections, practices, and solutions, in contrast to memorizing knowledge that others transmit to us.) In the context of everyone becoming creative learners we have to notice the variety of projects of inquiry and engagement different adults and children pursue in their work, education, and lives. We also have to acknowledge the pragmatic concerns people have in pursuing those various projects. But can we still imagine benefiting from "connecting, probing, and reflecting" that stretches us beyond particular concerns? If so, what can we learn from and contribute to other people inquiring and engaging in a creative spirit. In other words, in what ways does creative learning get scaffolded:
  • When do different people keep to themselves or interact in a private, trusted circle? How have people reached out to build constituencies and counter feelings of isolation?
  • When and how have they sought support in not continuing along previous lines—that is, in taking initiatives where they cannot rely simply on the skills, resources, networks of connected people that they have built up over time and, in to a large extent, have embodied?
  • What stock-taking routines go on before they proceed from one phase to another; on from an activity or event; into dialogue with others; or at a branch point, when choosing an activity or path to pursue?
  • What role have they given to mentors and mentoring? To friends and cultivating friendship?

Linking these two realms into questions for the CE
What stories in literature (including memoir and biography) and the arts emphasize scaffolding over the self-making or destiny of the central subject or hero? What structures or sequences of steps can be seen in those stories? Can lessons be drawn about how to foster or support creative learning--in oneself and in others--especially through story-telling?

Stories that might stimulate our thinking about scaffolding creative learning
P. Fleischman, Seedfolks, Mind's Eye, Borning Room, Saturnalia
L. Cunningham, Sleeping Arrangements
Mildred Taylor,
V. Paley, The Girl with the Brown Crayon
Apollo 13 (the movie)

Other sources:
Gottschall, J. The Storytelling Animal
Landau, M. (1984). "Human Evolution as Narrative." American Scientist 72(May-June): 262-268.
White, M. Maps of Narrative Practice

Intended outcomes of this inquiry are of two kinds:

CE: expectations and mechanics

Whatever thread of inquiry participants pursue in any specific Collaborative Exploration (CE), your posts and contribution to live sessions should aim to stimulate and guide the learning of other participants, and build towards the final tangible product described in the scenario. The complementary, "experiential" goal is to be impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants.

The CE will take place over 22 days and consists of four sessions spaced one week apart, in which a small group interacts in real time live via google hangout for 60 minutes.* The day and time is arranged to fit the schedules of applicants, but often 9-10am, 4-5, 5-6 or 6-7pm to maximize the coverage of international time zones. Participants spend time between sessions on self-directed inquiry on the case, sharing of inquiries-in-progress, and reflecting on the process (which typically involves shifts in participants' definition of what they want to find out and how). Prospective participants are asked not to sign up if they cannot guarantee live participation in most of the sessions and an equivalent amount of time between sessions spent on the case. (Sessions will be available as a private unlisted youtube for participants who have to miss once.) A public google+ community, open beyond the small group, allows interested people to view and respond to any posts posted by the small group, which may, in turn, draw on them in their private discussions. The structure of each live CE session is predefined, but the CE builds in room for participants to take stock so as to inform future proposals for improvements in these structures.

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