When designing an experience, the scaffolding must give enough structure while allowing for ambiguity.  The ambiguity we most often allowed in our experiences was the content itself (the data and blog commentary in Experimonth: Mood, the discourse in Race and Identity, the drawings and discourse in Project FeederWatch: Sketch). The structure was the activities we created that inspired participants to create that content.  As facilitators, we designed good structures. As participants, we fulfilled our promise to participate.  Both the facilitators and the participants must hold up their ends of that contract, but it is the burden of the facilitator to hold the ambiguity of whether or not the structure will result in meaningful content for the group.

In other words, everyone must feel a little scared. The experience must require that everyone is in some way or another operating outside their comfort zone. This is the mark of a powerfully scaffolded experience, one that requires effort and trust to become what it wants to be.

As we scaffolded activities for experiences like Experimonth: Mood, Race/Identity or Project FeederWatch: Sketch, we initially added ideas liberally, even ones that seemed impossible to create or sustain. Then, we tried them behind the scenes and with friends to see how each resonated. In some cases, we surveyed beta testers, in other cases, we tossed out or greenlit ideas based on gut instincts.  The collection of activities that define each of the projects in our research study — e.g.

  • Text message a number that indicates your mood five times a day for a month.
  • Survey your friends about their experiences with race and identity.
  • Share photos of yourself along with memories from your childhood.
  • Gift a baby of a different ethnicity to a child in your life.
  • Read the newspaper and point out articles that evoke race.
  • Draw random shapes with a bunch of different markers and paper.
  • Draw a bird from memory and then from a photo.
  • Draw something without looking at the page while you draw.
  • Draw a bird from a challenging or unfamiliar perspective.
 — were each activities that facilitators vetted enthusiastically through personal testing as a way to understand what we’d be asking of our participants, what they might learn and experience through their participation, whether or not self-direction was also possible, and if it was meaningful, sustainable and even fun (!) to do.
Watch the video below, made by our facilitators, where they discuss the process of balancing learning goals with the quality of the experience: