Scaffolded Learning and Leadership

Do you ever think back, either through self-reflection, or to figure out how to help train, induct and mentor a new activist, how you learned to be the effective and empowered activist you are?

Over the last three months NSW activists have participated in a ‘Scaffolded training series’ led by the Patrick Baffoun from the Amnesty NSW Training (ANT) Team. Scaffolded learning principles and practices help to develop activists through guided learning, reflection and providing space for them to test new concepts and make mistakes in a supported environment. Patrick’s workshop sessions were built on this concept, breaking up the learning into four discrete workshops over four days across four months and stepped up the learning and skills over the day and over each session based on principles of scaffolded learning.

As a grassroots organisation, Amnesty activists build on existing knowledge and become more empowered and independent. So how can you as a Amnesty leader use this model to support other activists?

If you have training in the education sphere, you likely recognise the concept of ‘scaffolded learning’. Teachers help students master a task or concept by providing support and gradually weaning the support until the learner is independent. Like a physical scaffold, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed, while the student takes on more responsibility for the learning. Throughout the learning process engaging tasks are provided that allow the student to build on their skills that need to be mastered while allowing for error and self-development with the effective guidance by the teacher.

Set-up the learning and engagement space

You want your activists to feel safe and to participate in the learning, so it is important to set-up a collaborative learning environment. Set this up early on. Be mindful of the environment you are in. How can you make it feel more ‘warm’? Get some natural light in, make it an accessible environment, have a designated greeter to welcome newcomers and such.

In Training of the Trainers, the room was set-up as a round table, attendees were warmly greeted on arrival and introduced themselves through some engaging and fun ice-breakers. Participation was encouraged at the outset by all, with a review of the agenda and content and Patrick noted the expectations of the day by attendees and adapted content. Usefully Patrick highlighted fundamentals such as power dynamics for future trainers and leaders to be mindful of – such as assumed knowledge between new versus long-term activists, mixing up the seating between new and long-term activists, and as the trainer, making oneself accessible by sitting down rather than standing, and keeping the environment conversational and open to questions rather than rushing through the agenda.

(C) Private. Training discussion time

As the more experienced activist you are there to guide, teach and support but also be accessible to those you are supporting. If you are in an action group or network, consider how to best make newcomers or even longterm activists welcome in a new space, regardless if you are hosting an event, meeting or training day – these are all learning spaces. Also, just because someone has been an activist for a period it doesn’t always mean they are comfortable in different activism environments. Welcome feedback and perhaps designate a group member to check in (subtly throughout the activity or at the end) with any newcomers to ensure they understand what is happening and explain things to them, build their knowledge to make them feel connected and part of discussions. Amnesty International Australia is full of jargon for newcomers.

Bridging learning gaps and support engaged learning

After all isn’t this what learning and training is about, get skilled up to bridge your learning gaps and grow? Amnesty activists are often asked to do a variety of things, based on interest, need and to try new approaches. The learning gap is the difference between that has been learnt and what is expected knowledge at a certain point of experience.

As an activist and activist leader you need to have an understanding of where you and those you lead are at and know when to reach out for support or provide support.

It’s vital to remember that people are not blank canvases – they come with their own interests, skills and experience. Have a conversation with your activists – work though reflections on their past activities, have them try new activities and work to extend them beyond that level once you gauge where they are at.

Start simple and move onto the difficult. Reflect on where you started and your journey. What was your first activist activity and what did you need to know and be able to do? Was it helping on a stall – so you needed to know about the campaign and how to meaningfully engage with the public and lead to the action ask of writing/signing a letter/petition? How did you pick up these skills and knowledge?

Have this discussion with your activist or reflect with your group and use this knowledge to help support new activists. When working with new activists keep the dialogue open and interactive, practice active listening skills and be aware of what you might not be hearing.

Scaffolded learning requires a constant judge of what kinds of scaffold supports are appropriate and how much is needed at any time. Monitor responses, and help them make personal meaning of experiences and develop a fuller understanding. Encourage peer engagement and questions and to build on the interaction their peers. You can do this throughout your event, especially if you are in a stall-like environment, or organise a formal debrief either at the end of the event or during the next meeting – allow for time and space for these discussions to help activists grow and up-skill – model this behaviour as the leader.

(C) Private. Strategic Planning training – energiser activity

Making mistakes and growing

I don’t think there has ever been an activist who has been able to hit the ground of day one, with no prior experience, and not hit a few bumps along the way and make a few mistakes.

Build activist’s confidence and let them try things and build on this skill, layer learning and practice. Have the new activist practice with you, perhaps just shadow a couple of other activists for a little while, and then let them practice.

At this point it is important to anticipate some errors or areas of difficulty and be able to step in with support – either through interceding and modelling or debrief and provide corrective feedback. You want to help mitigate negative emotions and self-perceptions of frustration, intimidation or discouragement when attempting a difficult tasks outside of their experience of practice without assistance, direction or understanding to complete it. Your support can be adjusted and temporal as required for the task and learning requires – then support and guidance is gradually removed as the learner becomes more proficient. Work with them to incrementally improve their skills, weaning the level of support until they can do so without assistance.

In the Strategic Planning workshop Patrick led activists to understand some important principles of communication, planning and developing partnerships and collaboration through a simple learning task and reflective feedback. Five participants were asked to blindfold themselves and stand in a circle around a long piece of string and form a perfect square with the string. As a good trainer, Patrick anticipated some of the errors – a wonky pentagon was formed – and used these as a peer learning activity. Patrick encouraged the group to self-reflect and come to their own conclusions of errors and describe their experience and interpretation.

Constructively challenge and encourage reflections to build greater proficiency and confidence in the next guided attempt. Learning and growth is dependent on one making those mistakes, learning from it and improving to succeed in future attempts.

Stretch the wings

Scaffolded learning speaks to Amnesty’s commitment to empowered activists leading the movement, building on skills, understanding and practice to take action for human rights.

(C) Private. Group photo at end of training session.

With a scaffolded learning and mentoring experience, build up the confidence of your activists and/or group, stretch your wings, and know that you have the support of your mentor (whether it’s someone in your group/network or an Amnesty staff member) behind you as you grow and learn and implement new learnings.

The NSW team would like to thank Patrick for helping to train our activists and we eagerly look forward to the next workshop on Expanding the Group on 22 September. NSW activists can register here.

If you have any questions about training or what support you need, don’t hesitate to contact your Community Organiser at