Understanding Intellectual Scaffolding

Scaffolding: Understanding the Way People Think

If you are going to understand in clearer ways the mindset (the ingredients that make up an intellectual scaffold) in a person or within a community, you must have conversations. With individuals, there must be ongoing conversations, and in communities, there must be conversations with the right people. Asking the right questions will unlock the right doors about the things that people value in their life and in their world.

All too often, attempts to gather information about what people think (surveys, questionnaires, etc.) are too mechanical, and the questions posed are strategically structured to get the answers that the surveyors want. Intellectual scaffolding is much deeper than a survey or questionnaire. In general, people are willing to tell you what they think about something (good and bad), especially if you approach them in the right way with the right attitude. Simplistic feedback strategies can often miss the value of conversation and the significance of shared communication and experience.

The Value of Questions. Questions in conversation provide the best way to understand a person’s pattern of thinking and a community’s intellectual scaffold. How valuable are questions in conversation?

  1. They open fields of opportunity rather than pigeon-hole outcomes.
  2. They connect people to common ground affinities.
  3. They expose wider perspectives and standpoints.
  4. They direct the dialogue in constructive ways.
  5. They reduce resistance and encourage response.
  6. They refine existing ideas into better ideas.
  7. They offer potential solutions and new ways to look at present challenges.
  8. They lead to new ideas, new strategies and new outcomes.

Asking the Right Kind of Questions. Frances Bacon, famous English Enlightenment philosopher and scientist, stated: “a faculty of wise interrogating is half a knowledge.”[1] What he meant by that statement is at least half of all knowledge is best gained through asking good questions. It is simply not enough to ask broad questions about a person’s or a community’s thought. The kind of questions that open doors to a greater understanding involve questions about their preferences, motivations, habits, attitudes, responses to power, and attitudes about people. Consider these kinds of questions that you can ask an individual, or a group:

  • The “what?” questions: They unlock a person’s or a community’s preferences and activities.
    1. What do you (people) do in this community when not at work?
    2. What are some of the most popular spots in this community that you (people) visit or patronize?
    3. What do you (people) read (books), listen to (music, radio) and watch (TV, movies) in this community?
    4. What are some of your (this community’s) greatest issues?
  • The “why?” questions: They unlock a person’s or a community’s motivations.
    1. Why do you (people) like this ___________ (book, movie, TV show, restaurant, etc.)?
    2. Why do you (people) support and recommend this ___________ (cause, business, church, service, etc.)?
    3. Why do you (people) react to, question or challenge something in the community? (name a specific issue, if known).
    4. Why are these problems (list them) present in this community?
  • The “when?” questions: they unlock a person’s or a community’s habits and rhythms.
    1. When do you (people) look for wholesome things to do?
    2. When do you (people) feel the best and worst in the community?
    3. When are you (people) most open to new things?
  • The “how?” questions: they unlock a person’s or community’s attitude.
    1. How do you (people) address your (their) problems and challenges?
    2. How do you (does this community) respond to its social and civic issues?
    3. How do you (people) communicate and how are you (people) made aware of opportunities and problems?
  • The “where?” questions: they unlock a person’s or a community’s power-centers.
    1. Where do you (people) find hope? (inspiration)
    2. Where do you (people) find help? (assistance)
    3. Where do you (people) find healing? (resolution)
  • The “who?” questions: they unlock a community’s gate keepers.
    1. Who are the movers and shakers (doers)?
    2. Who are the influencers and magnets (leaders)?
    3. Who are the watch tower people (people-in-the-know)?

These kinds of questions (and many more), given in the spirit of a genuine dialogue, will render important information that will move you to a better understanding of an individual’s scaffold and a community’s mindset. In the process of conversation with enough people, elements and issues will rise to the surface. The elements that find continued repetition by the most people likely represent elements that partially compose a community’s intellectual scaffold.

Potential elements in a person’s or a community’s scaffold include: 1) beliefs, 2) expectations, 3) self-image, 4) interests, 5) prejudices, 6) values, 7) virtues, 8) responses, 9) fears and 10) presuppositions.

Important: a clearer realization of a person’s or a community’s scaffolding elements leads to a better understanding of how truth and reality is constructed and understood. This prepares the way to contrast the elements of their scaffold with the tenets of the Christian gospel.

[1] Frances Bacon, On the Advancement of Learning, Book II in The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Second Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001, 741.