What is Scaffolding?
Scaffolding in instruction is when a teacher supports students throughout the learning process. The instructor gradually introduces new ideas, building on each prior step and knowledge. As students learn new skills, they are able to master the task by tackling each section at a time. This allows them to acquire new skills using only temporary supports.
Scaffolding is based on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, which first debuted in 1978. His concept centered around three ideas:
- What students are unable to do
- What students are able to do independently
- What students are able to do with assistance
A simple example of scaffolding would be a child learning to walk. A new parent does not simply place a toddler on their feet and expect him to start walking right away. First, the parents would hold their child upright, allowing him to put barely any weight on his own legs. Then, he may begin to put more weight on his legs, until he gets the movement correct of one foot in front of the other. The child may then be able to take small steps and bear his own weight while holding onto a coffee table for stability. In time, he may take some unsteady steps with his parents close by, watching like a hawk, and finally, he will be able to walk on their own. Just as parents scaffold learning for their own children, teachers scaffold learning to ensure that their students are successful. After navigating through small, calculated steps, the student is ready to tackle a problem independently.
See also: Cognitive Apprenticeship
Scaffolding is beneficial because it promotes a positive learning environment. Students feel supported; they are able to ask questions, encourage their classmates, and offer their opinion on the activity. The instructor adopts more of a facilitator role – they guide the students through their learning journey. This encourages students to become more responsible for their own learning, and, in turn, they create their own goals and monitor their own levels of engagement.
Any task or activity with multiple steps could greatly benefit from scaffolding put in place. Learning strategies are highly dependent on the calculated support implemented by the instructor. Some teachers find that they naturally incorporate supports into their lessons, while others need to make a more conscious decision to do so. However, even with scaffolding in place, some students may never be able to achieve a specific task on their own.
This brings us to the topic of scaffolding and learning disabilities. Some students may engage in the task, and with supports, are able to complete the activity. Just because they are able to do the motions of the task does not mean that they are making the connection to the underlying idea. It is important that instructors closely monitor their students to ensure that they understand the reasoning behind each section. Teachers could have the students attempt to perform the activity on their own to see if learning has taken place.
See also: Situated Learning Theory
How do I scaffold instruction?
There are many ways to scaffold learning. Teachers may utilize different techniques based on the needs of their students or the type of task at hand. One way is not better than another, and each instructor will need to assess each situation as it comes. They will also need to reflect on their prior experiences and the support required for each student before committing to one strategy.
However, each scaffolding strategy does consist of two important elements:
- Modeling: Teachers demonstrate the task by modeling each step required. Students may need many opportunities in order to understand how each step is done. Repetition is critical to learning, which is why it is important that the students can witness the teacher modeling many times. Understanding the importance of each step is also critical to student success in the task.
- Practice: The teacher allows the students to work with him or herself in order to practice the task. Working with the teacher or in collaboration with others allows them the opportunity to be successful in their learning.
The following table outlines an example of teaching both with and without scaffolding in place. While we generally discuss the idea of scaffolding in the traditional classroom, scaffolding is also implemented in everyday life. The example below demonstrates the scaffolding put in place by the parent, not the educator. You can see that both practice and modeling were key components in the example that used scaffolding.
See also: Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura
|Teaching without scaffolding||Teaching with scaffolding|
|I taught my son how to ride his bike by first explaining how to put his feet on the pedals and move them in a circular motion. Then, I gave him a push and had him try himself.||I taught my son how to ride his bike by first sitting on the bike to demonstrate how to ride it. Then, I had him try with training wheels to practice the movement required. I gradually lifted the training wheels to allow him to practice without falling. Finally, I removed the training wheels when he was ready to try independently. I ensured that he was ready by holding onto the seat and walking alongside him as he rode.|
It is possible to implement elements of scaffolding throughout the entire learning journey. The following ideas are ways that educators can incorporate scaffolding in the classroom itself.
- Offer a welcoming environment. Students who feel safe and supported in class are more likely to take risks in their learning. Mistakes should be viewed as opportunities to learn and to try again without fear of shame by others.
- Reflect on the entry-level of knowledge of students – if the content is too challenging, the students may lose interest. If the content is not challenging enough, they will be easily bored.
- Co-create learning goals with the students. If the students feel like they have a say in their learning, they will be much more motivated to follow through.
- Develop activities that directly correlate with the instructional goals. This will help students see the relevance and the importance of the task.
- Create a positive rapport with students. Encourage them and make positive comments about their work.
- Ask them questions. Help them focus by offering redirection or subtle suggestions to achieve their goals.
- Use various strategies to assist students throughout a learning activity, for example, diagrams, graphics, sentence prompts, questioning, relevant stories, or other forms of visual models.
- Offer feedback. Have students summarize their own understanding and compare it to their own learning goals. What do they still have to work on? See also: Formative and Summative Assessment
- Build independence by encouraging students to apply their knowledge to new contexts. Application builds understanding, which will help ease students from the supports.
Scaffolding strategies to use with your students
There are also many ways to incorporate scaffolding directly into everyday teaching:
- Show and Tell – the instructor models a problem while sharing the solutions. Alternatively, some students could demonstrate an example of a task and show the other students how to do it. Talking through an activity like this is called the “show and tell” method.
- Leverage Prior Knowledge – tasks should relate to everyday experiences. Students who are able to make connections between the information and their own lives can brainstorm possible problem-solving skills that may assist them with the activity.
- Talk Time – explaining concepts to another solidifies understanding. Having the students discuss new ideas out loud not only helps identify possible misconceptions but also promotes better recollection. Students can chat in small groups or with the instructor.
- Pre-Teach Vocabulary – review complex words before covering a difficult text. If students are able to visualize challenging words, there is a much higher likelihood that they will understand the topic. They can make connections to the words in other settings and can therefore focus on learning the concept itself.
- Use Visuals – use graphic organizers to help your students visualize how information is connected. Venn diagrams and tables that offer comparison are both good examples of strategies to utilize in class.
- Practice Pausing – reflect often on the information taught. Some courses cover a lot of concepts in a short period of time, so it is critical to review and summarize important information with the students. Observe the class; do they understand what you are talking about? One technique to implement is to “pause, ask questions, pause, and review.” Plan possible questions to ask the students ahead of the lesson, and give them time to reflect on their answers.
- Describe Concepts – utilize oral skills. Graphic organizers help not only the instructor better describe the concept but also assist the students in communicating their own understanding. Everyone can verbally share their knowledge by referencing a visual aid.
- Promote Success – outline goals ahead of time. If both the students and the instructor have an idea of where they are going in the learning journey, they will have a greater chance at maintaining focus. New tasks should also build on prior knowledge in order to motivate students.