Lessons from “Bean Dad” about Scaffolding
John Roderick was just like any other aging rocker: Raising his children and posting about it on Twitter. But his foray into publicizing his parenting strategies has caused a big backlash, eventually outing him as a homophobe and antisemite.
But before his hate speech was found, his teaching drew the ire of many. So what happened, why was it agitating, and what can we learn about our own teaching and learning from Bean Dad?
A BIT OF CONTEXT
John Roderick is the lead singer of the Long Winters and a podcaster, appearing on at least four separate podcasts at the time of writing. He took to Twitter one chilly January day to describe an experience with teaching his daughter how to open a can of baked beans.
To summarize, he told his daughter to look at the tool and figure out how it worked to open the beans, and that nobody in his house would eat until the bean can had been opened. Fast forward six hours later, and she finally gets it open, but not before a lot of frustration, tears, and general confusion from his daughter. You can read the full thread by Twitter user @ManiacaIV here in an article from NBC.
What went wrong? Other than sharing the story online, and thinking he was right, Bean Dad bungled a hallmark of pedagogy: Scaffolding. It’s easy to understand but difficult to master and implement. Let’s use Bean Dad to learn some aspects of scaffolding!
What makes some good educational moments is scaffolding, the oft-touted metaphor that teachers and administrators love to whip out to sound smart and with it. But what is scaffolding? Where did it come from? And why did John Roderick, the Bean Dad, fail to use it effectively in his story?
Scaffolding first appears in education literature from Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. They studied how, essentially, children learned with the aid of a more capable person, which they called the more knowledgeable other (MKO). This allows the child to complete tasks beyond their own abilities and internalize how to do them. So, get someone smarter than you to help walk you through the process and you’ll be on your way to increasing your abilities!
Scaffolding also draws upon the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his sociocultural theory. Vygotsky (1978) proposed the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Think of it as three concentric circles: In the middle is the zone that shows what the learner can do by themselves. The outermost circle is the realm of the impossible; what the learner cannot do at present. Wedged in between is the ZPD, which is the area that describes what the learner can do with the aid of a capable peer or guidance. Essentially, it’s what they can do with guidance but can’t yet do on their own. This is where optimal learning takes place, or so the theory goes. It is in the ZPD where we see scaffolding take place.
From there, it branches out into specific disciplines and their various applications therein, formal versus informal settings, dissections of the wording in the theory itself, and other such arguments typical of academia. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds, so we’ll keep things a bit over-simplified here for our purposes.
To make it easier to digest, and to give us a framework for evaluation, here are five criteria for good scaffolding that I enjoy from Applebee (1986):
- Student ownership of the learning event
- Appropriateness of the learning task
- Structured learning environment
- Shared responsibility
- Transfer of control
These are designed for a more formal learning environment, but we can be lenient in our application. Let’s break down Bean Dad’s approaches to each step to see where he could have done better, from a pedagogical point of view.
PART 1: STUDENT OWNERSHIP OF THE LEARNING EVENT
This is defined by Applebee, briefly, as the task allowing for learner contributions. In a formal learning context, it means not to just lecture at your students without allowing them to ask questions, discuss what they are learning, solve a problem related to the lecture, and so forth.
Bean Dad, John, kind of took this to an odd extreme: He made the lesson all about learner contribution and nothing else. There is no feedback from Bean Dad beyond “think about it harder” or some stories about cans he opened. This set up a bit of an antagonistic relationship between the teacher (Bean Dad) and the learner (his daughter): She was forced to approach the problem against her will, as she wanted him to help and he refused. There is no dialogue between the teacher and his learner. Instead, you have a demotivated learner who doesn’t see the value in having to struggle this way to learn the skill, as she can’t do anything meaningful with the feedback. She doesn’t choose ownership of this situation, instead, she has her agency taken away by the forceful insistence of her Legume Liege.
PART 2: APPROPRIATENESS OF THE INSTRUCTIONAL TASK
Here, this means that the current task that is being learned should build upon what the learner already knows. The task should also be just difficult enough to allow for new learning to happen. So, is it appropriate to go from zero to bean can in a single lesson?
Bean Dad admits himself that he never taught his daughter how to use the can opener, given the prevalence of pull-top cans. Here is the first mistake: A lack of background knowledge. John’s daughter is encountering this tool for the first time and has no previously-learned knowledge to really fall back on. Without encountering something like this before, she struggles to connect her previous knowledge to what’s happening with the can to solve the problem. Nothing in her repertoire has her prepared for this, seen in her struggle to even identify the parts of the can opener. Bean Dad skips straight from the introduction to the conclusion without thinking about the tasty meat in between where learning occurs.
Modeling is a tried and true teaching technique: Connect your technical or new vocabulary with actions as you demonstrate them for your learner. Then, you do the task in a collaborative manner with your learner, until moving on to finally having the learner perform the task themself. This is an easy way to introduce new knowledge that can be applied immediately by your learner, be they opening a can of beans, completing a mathematical proof, or learning how to ask for help in a foreign language.
PART 3: STRUCTURED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Here’s the big one: This means that there is a natural progression of the language used and sequencing of the task, presenting the learner with helpful strategies and approaches to help solve the task. As seen in the critique for Part 2, Bean Dad skipped all of the instructions and assistance and instead waited for the conclusion of an opened can.
What also happened, in my estimation, is that Bean Dad thought he was helping create that structure by giving vague clues to his daughter: think about the intent behind the device, think about how this tool is used to solve the problem. This may sound good in certain contexts, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what is helpful in this situation. Knowing the inner workings of something does not necessarily lead to an understanding of how to solve your problem with it.
My favorite example to illustrate this is from the Big Bang Theory: The guys are driving home on the freeway when their car breaks down. Leonard, the driver, asks if anyone knows about internal combustion engines. All his nerdy friends begin talking over each other about the intricacies of the device before Leonard interrupts and asks more pointedly “Does anyone know how to fix the engine?” Everyone goes silent and looks sheepishly at the ground, cue canned laughter. Having knowledge doesn’t automatically mean you know how to apply it, and in the case of the can opener, you can operate it fine without knowing precisely what each part does, or the inventor’s “intent” behind the device.
PART 4: SHARED RESPONSIBILITY
This is instructional interaction: The teacher and the student are working together to solve the task. They are collaborators, on the same team.
Bean Dad (condescendingly) stated that his daughter has trouble with many aspects that could make this task more challenging, seemingly admitting that she would require a bit of extra guidance to help her on her journey. That help would be in the form of careful instruction that allowed her to practice orienting herself with those spatial skills she has issues with, not extra time to struggle and give up. Instead of collaborating, he stays off to the sidelines, doing his puzzle or telling stories of different cans he opened and the foodstuffs contained therein. He isn’t a team member; he’s barely present in the most minimal of ways for this learning event. He’s certainly not much of a collaborator and acts almost as an antagonist, particularly when his daughter gets so frustrated that she says “I hate you” to her father. Yikes.
PART 5: TRANSFER OF CONTROL
Eventually, as the student begins to internalize the methods and approaches, the teacher eases up their assistance and allows the learner to have more control and, ultimately, become more competent.
I think this is what happened: Bean Dad started with this step and tried to move backward in a way. He immediately went hands-off and put all the responsibility to figure the task out on his daughter’s shoulders. In his mind, the struggle of figuring it out yourself would yield the intoxicating high of triumph and understanding. This, however, is a pretty poor learning design, especially since there is a lack of feedback from the can and the can opener. They can’t give his daughter clues onto how she is approaching this incorrectly; they’re just things. A Tool. And beans. And if the learner isn’t particularly trained in being aware of how to self-regulate and search for that elusive feedback (and be aware that information is even feedback), this approach will be a waste of time.
TL;DR (OR, THE SUMMARY)
So, what can we learn from Bean Dad? Here’s a shortlist of takeaways for you all to chew on:
- If your learner doesn’t have much background, you have to help establish that background before you can get anywhere with the present task.
- Make sure the task is within the realm of reason, given the demands of that task and the background knowledge of your learner.
- Learning is a process. Take time to structure that process for better results.
- Learning is a team effort. You are a collaborator with your learner, not an overlord or overseer. Get your hands dirty and get involved in a meaningful way!
- Pull back your assistance based on how well your learner is doing. When they are ready to fly, be aware of that and let them soar. If they’re not ready, keep helping them.
- Buy beans in a bag and cook them yourself.
So our report card stands 0/5 for proper scaffolding by Bean Dad. This frustration and ire from Twitter could be an emotional response from the critics: They have felt the sting from bad instruction. They have felt that frustration before, maybe at the same age as his daughter, in the past. Perhaps they can’t articulate precisely why it’s bad, but they know it when they see it. And it would seem they are justified in their call-out for his poor teaching methods. And his racism and homophobia, more so than his teaching. Definitely needs to be called out for that.
And thus ends my take on the saga of Bean Dad. Sources listed below and feel free to leave me a message with a terrible learning experience of your own: How was scaffolding misused in your own learning adventure? I’d love to hear from you all!
Applebee, A. N. (1986). Problems in process approaches: Towards a reconceptualization of process instruction in A. R. Petrosky and D. Bartholomae (eds.) The Teaching of Writing. 85th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rosenblatt, K. (2021, Jan 6). ‘Bean Dad’ John Roderick Apologizes for Twitter Thread About Daughter, Racist Tweets. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/viral/bean-dad-john-roderick-apologizes-twitter-thread-about-daughter-racist-n1252832
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: the Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Williams, T. (2021, Jan 4). Viral Bean Dad Deletes Twitter Account After Racist and Homophobic Tweets Resurface. Sick Chirpse. https://www.sickchirpse.com/viral-bean-dad-deletes-twitter-account-after-racist-and-homophobic-tweets-resurface/