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Putting away the ladder: real development involves multiple strands and pathways
Q: Why is the ladder a poor metaphor for learning?
Whether it's the expectation that skill development is a linear progression or the idea that skills are separately built "up," the ladder has long served as a metaphor for learning and development. For example, traditionally, writing an essay is presented as a simple ladder of hierarchical skill development: sentence→brainstorming a topic→finding evidence→topic sentence→paragraph→five-paragraph essay→research paper. Despite knowing that writing is an infinitely messier process, many teachers continue to create syllabi that assume the learner must climb this ladder. Dynamic skill theory suggests a more useful metaphor: the web, which more accurately captures what happens in skill development. Each strand in the web is meant to represent a particular skill that develops and changes over time and in relation to other skills.
|The Web: A Metaphor for Skill Development|
|Development occurs in webs (and levels), and different people have different webs. Webs may have many strands (or skills), which interact to show a person's ability in terms of his or her whole...|
Imagine that the web above represents Sarah, a high school junior who has become a good writer, and that this web provides a picture of the interrelated skills for her development as an essayist. At the top, perhaps in early adolescence, three separate skills are developing: writing, interacting with friends, and playing board games. What happens is that these skills, though perhaps starting to develop separately, branch out and intersect, helping to inform, develop, and support each other (and produce other skills unrelated to writing—for example, persuading her parents to give her more social freedom). Sarah writes pretty good grammatical sentences, and she develops a real knack for helping her friends, who tend to bring their social problems to her. She helps them solve interpersonal difficulties, such as what to say to parents who won't let them do what they want. It is this social skill, Sarah's ability to persuade, that comes to inform her understanding of how to use specific evidence to develop a paragraph topic and, thus, improve her writing skill. Meanwhile, her developing skill as a chess player begins to inform her ability to think strategically both in social situations and as a writer.
The ladder as metaphor fails in two main ways. It misses the variability involved in developing a skill like writing by presenting it as a single ability when, in fact, it is the result of the interaction of several developing strands of skills, some of which we might (erroneously) not even consider relevant to writing. The ladder also fails because it suggests that there is some universal, standard ("normal") way that a skill develops—one syllabus for all. In fact, although there may be many similarities in developing a particular skill, the differences are important.
Let's look at a typical situation. A history (top)
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teacher assigns a research paper to her juniors. "Write a paper on Andrew Jackson and the significance of his policies when he was president." One student, Judy, has real analytical strengths. She has a knack for getting to the heart of arguments, and she is good at Latin and geometry. As a child, she enjoyed sitting with her parents and working on the household budget, an interest that led her to board games and an understanding of rules and procedures. Now, she enjoys reading about economics and has a growing understanding of people's spending habits. As a result of this web of skills, she writes a strong analysis of Jackson's economic policies and their significance for the country.
|Skill Web for Judy|
|In this hypothetical diagram of skill interactions, two childhood skills, budgeting and understanding others' needs and actions, combine to produce a skill in high school for...|
Bob, another student, has very strong social skills. Not only is he a leader in school government, but he also shows real promise as an actor in school plays and is good at English, where his teacher praises him for his insights into character. As a child, he developed strong skills for taking the emotional perspectives of others and for understanding why people make the decisions they make. He enjoyed keeping an introspective journal and loved to play with words, eventually learning that people's words often reveal their motivation. His essay explores Jackson's personal life and the significance of his policies as a reflection of his character.
|Skill Web for Bob|
|In this second hypothetical diagram of skill interactions, Bob displays an alternative approach to an essay assignment on the impact of Andrew Jackson's policies. Unlike Judy, this student...|
Both Judy and Bob used their strengths, their interests, and their way of seeing the world to solve the problem presented by the teacher's rather open-ended assignment. The result was two very different, legitimate essays. Had the teacher restricted the assignment—for example, to Jackson's military strategy—the challenge might have resulted in less success. Judy, especially, might have struggled, though perhaps she could have found a new entry point in her affection for and knowledge of board-game strategy. Bob might still have been able to see Jackson's character reflected in his military decisions.