Scaffolding

I gave up my OU course this week. It was a postgraduate course, the second I’ve attempted. I didn’t enjoy the first one much, but I thought the second, having had a great write-up, would be different. The material was different (and really interesting) but the assessments weren’t.

The idea is that you learn to critically assess, summarise, and compare and contrast, academic articles from peer reviewed journals. The difference between courses appears to manifest in the subject matter of the articles you assess. I found that this is an activity that I don’t do well and don’t enjoy. So rather than struggle on, stressing myself out, doing something I don’t enjoy, I withdrew from the course.

I got my batchelor’s degree in Maths and Statistics from the Open University – it took me 17 years overall, but I did it. I really enjoyed most of the courses, and the assessments and activities and exams. Because it was a degree in Maths and Stats, most of the coursework involved questions that were basically equations, or ‘sums’, and had a right or wrong answer. There were very very few essay style questions, and those there were had a rigidly defined structure and were quite short.

The postgrad courses though, give the students a lot of freedom – we/they have to choose topics, find relevant articles, and then write long essay style assessments comparing and contrasting the articles and their contributions to the topic. For me, that’s too much freedom. Confronted by such a task, I freeze, and panic, and have no idea where to start. Eventually I do start, by kind of squinting sideways at the problem, grabbing a topic out of thin air, doing a google scholar search or a search in the OU Library, finding an article vaguely on the subject in question, and grinding my way through the summary painfully – and not very well.

The boys, middlest especially, have the same problem when confronted by homework. If there’s a list of questions, sums, or any kind of structured activity, that’s fine. But anything freeform, anything that requires them to ‘go off and find out about’, or ‘draw a poster on this subject’, results in panic, tantrums and tears.

Apparently, this is common with autistic children. There’s a strategy that can help them called scaffolding, where the basic structure of the homework is set out for the children, to help them know how to get started. Once scaffolding is in place, the task becomes easier – although still not particularly easy.

All of this has given me an insight into the way that I work, and is one of the reasons I don’t feel so bad about giving up my course. If there’s a template, and defined sources of information, I’m fine. In my working life, if there’s not a template (and there usually is), I can almost always find something suitable on the internet.

My problems come when someone asks me to ‘just knock up a one-pager’. For those of you who are lucky enough never to have heard this phrase, it means to summarise information into one or two pages of a Powerpoint presentation, usually in order to present it to much more senior people. The information they want me to summarise is usually vague and ill-considered, and there’s no pre-defined structure to what the requester wants me to present. I expect that neurotypical people can just do this stuff but I have no idea how. And I find myself getting more and more stressed, and feeling incapable, until someone supplies me with a template or a previous example. This is actually one of the (many) reasons I decided to leave my last role.

Luckily so far in my current role, this hasn’t happened, and isn’t that likely to. But I’m already planning a coping strategy in case it ever does. I’ve seriously considered having a tantrum, bursting into tears and curling up into a ball under my desk… but on reflection, I’ve decided to just say ‘Are you asking me to ‘just knock up a one-pager’? Yeah, I don’t do that’. I’m very interested to see what the reaction is… I’m already known as someone who doesn’t do ‘just pop a half hour call in the diary’ if I can possibly avoid it. Mostly because the outcome of such calls tends to be a request for me to ‘just knock up a one-pager’…

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