Scaffolding in Education: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Scaffolding in Education: A practical guide for classroom teachers. How can you use scaffolding to promote learning outcomes?

What is scaffolding in education?

Scaffolding denotes a strategy by which teachers provide a specific way of support to the students, as they learn and develop a new skill or concept.

In the scaffolding model, the teacher provides new information or teaches how to work out any problem. Then, the teacher gradually leaves the student to practice on his own. Before becoming independent,  the student receives structured support (or “scaffolding”) such as group exercise. While working in a small group, a student might get help from other group members to perform a task. In short, the teacher explains how a task is done, then the student performs a task in collaboration with others and finally, the student works on his own. The process can be repeated until the student has mastered the skills needed for success. Scaffolding helps learners to systematically build their knowledge base through. It also allows them to gain confidence when performing tasks independently.

The term was first used in psychology to describe an experimental technique that involved providing feedback during cognitive development. This method allowed children to make mistakes without being punished. As a result, children were able to explore more freely and become better at solving problems.


Adopting scaffolding techniques to improve learning outcomes

Learning is a complicated process but in recent years several researchers and writers have helped draw our attention to some simple evidence informed principles that are easy to understand and implement. Placing these principles at the centre of classroom practice gives educators a strong direction when developing their instructional practice. At Structural Learning, we encourage students to break their learning tasks into chunks. Using the universal thinking framework, learning goals can be broken down into bite-size chunks. This makes the learning process manageable for everyone. A learning task will have several different components to it. For example, a learning task might include 1) research 2) Planning 3) Drafting 4) Writing. Each of these separate stages can be scaffolded with templates and organisational support. Student learning outcomes can be improved quite drastically if we demonstrate how any given learning task can be approached in this way. Instead of seeing the learning process as an overwhelming task that cannot be undertaken, breaking learning into chunks using our frameworks command words quickly dissolves any anxiety or negative feelings towards the task in hand. Whether you are working in an online learning environment or a classroom, this student-centered learning approach enables students to take more ownership and control of their learning. Learning goals don't need to be seen as these distant destinations that only the chosen few arrive at. Break the journey down so all the students can come with you. Effectively, a learning task can be broken down into a series of mini - lessons.

 scaffolding academic tasks with the universal thinking framework
scaffolding academic tasks with the universal thinking framework

Another example of using scaffolding to improve learning outcomes is our concept of mental modelling. Using writers block, educators around the globe have been breaking learning tasks into bite-size chunks that are easy to manage and engaging to participate in. The brightly coloured blocks can be used to scaffold learning in a variety of different environments. At its essence, the strategy enables children to process abstract ideas. Whether you are working with whole class of 30 or a small group of four, organising your ideas and making connections using the blocks puts children on a pathway to success and independence. Having a community of learners who are working together to complete a learning task brings with it opportunities for purposeful discussion and high-level reasoning. The online learner would typically not encounter the sorts of collaboration opportunities that we see in the classroom. Writers block helps develop independent learners who can make decisions about the knowledge that they are building. In time, the learner builds confidence and independence. When students are given space to construct knowledge together you are creating a climate of interdependent learners. That is, they are learning from one another collaborating and constructing as they move forward. Neil Mercer calls this concept 'Interthinking'. The social interaction acts as a catalyst for reasoning about the curriculum content. This type of interaction causes children to talk through their understanding and in doing so challenge misconceptions they may hold.

Scaffolding Learning Tasks using Writer's Block
Scaffolding Learning Tasks using Writer's Block

The ultimate purpose of scaffolding is to move a child from the current level of understanding. The level of guidance used to help a student develop their academic level will differ from student to student. Remember, scaffolding is a temporary structure designed to be removed. Too much scaffolding will deplete learner independence. The type of scaffolding you use will depend upon the developmental level of the child and the level of knowledge they currently have.


History of Scaffolding in Education

The word “scaffolding” was first used by the psychologist 'Jerome Bruner' in the 1960s. According to Bruner's Scaffolding theory, when students are provided with the support while learning a new concept or skill, they are better able to use that knowledge independently.

 In fact, Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross first used the term 'scaffolding' while applying Vygotsky's concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to diverse educational contexts.

The term 'Scaffolding' originated from construction and used for the temporary structure that is built for the builders to stand on while putting up new walls and grounds. Scaffolding in education, is a teachers' strategy for providing assistance while students master new skills and concepts.

graphic organisers as a scaffolding tool
graphic organisers as a scaffolding tool

Scaffolding Strategies in Education

There is a variety of scaffolding strategies that can be used in education. Some of these scaffolding strategies are especially engaging and fun-filled for the students.

  1. Tap Into Prior Knowledge

Students come to school with the experience and knowledge of many different topics. By connecting prior life experiences with new knowledge, teachers can help students understand new details more quickly. Students grasp and retain new knowledge more easily when they can relate it to something they already know. Following are some of the ways to use prior knowledge as a scaffolding strategy:

  • Teachers can ask students to share past experiences, ideas, and feelings about the concept or content taught in the class and connect and relate it to their life.
  • A teacher can also offer suggestions and hints, leading students to the connections. After some time students will start to understand the concept as their own.
  • Entry/exit tickets can be used as a method of classroom instruction. The instructor will distribute an index card with a discussion question or prompt on it for the learners to reflect upon or answer within a specific time frame.

Teachers must build on the students' understanding of a topic, rather than jumping straight into complex problem-solving right away. This helps them create a strong foundation for the rest of the topic!

  1. Give Time to Talk

Everyone needs time to show understanding. It can be helpful to give students time to understand what they have been asked before actually using their knowledge for independent working. Following are some of the ways to apply wait time as a scaffolding strategy:

  • Teachers can put students in small groups or pairs to talk with one another.
  • Teachers can pause and wait after asking a question, so that students can think and then give any answer. This silence can make students anxious at first, but students will gradually start to participate.

Wait time offers a great opportunity for learners' brains to organize their complex thinking and reflect on after a question has been asked. In fact, increasing wait time will offer an opportunity for the students to understand a question and compose an answer—allowing time for brain processing.

  1. Modelling

Guiding students how to perform a task by first performing it by the teachers themselves can be a useful teaching strategy. Teachers can teach students while walking or while talking to them about the task. Teachers can also utilize a small group of students model for other students. Following are some of the ways to use modelling as a scaffolding strategy in education.

  • A fishbowl activity can be used, by selecting a small group of students to stand in the middle and the rest of the class surrounds it. The fishbowl, or students in the middle, performs a task, model how the task is done for the bigger group.
  • Teachers can show the final product or outcome of a task, before asking students to perform the task. For example: teachers can show a model essay and a criteria chart or rubric before giving the task of writing a persuasive essay. Teachers can teach students through every step of this process using the model of the final product in hand.
  • Teachers can use think alouds, to model their thought process as they design a project, solve a problem or read text. Since children’s cognitive skills are still in development phase, so it is essential for them to see developed, critical thinking.

Modelling can be a useful scaffolding strategy, which teachers can easily use to teach any topic in the classroom.

  1. Pre-Teach Vocabulary

Scaffolding is important across each educational subject area. An area where students may require additional scaffolding is vocabulary building. Hence, prior to performing a complex task teachers can share particular vocabulary elements that may offer challenge. Vocabulary building can be performed in various ways prior to performing a task, including:

  • Introducing the words to children through pictures or any other thing they know and are interested in.
  • Using metaphors and analogies, and inviting students to draw a picture or create a symbol for a specific word.
  • After performing any of the above, students can use dictionaries to compare with those explanations they have already discovered by themselves.

Pre-teach vocabulary scaffolding strategy can be used for words that are difficult for the students to comprehend from the context. If students are not provided with the sufficient support to understand difficult vocabulary items, there is a possibility that they may lose interest in the class.

  1. Visual Aids

Visual scaffolding is performed through words and images that can be viewed as well as heard. This provides an excellent way to give comprehensible information to the students. Following are some of the ways to use visual aids as the scaffolding strategy.

  • Graphic organizers, charts and pictures, can all be used as scaffolding tools. Graphic organizers help children visually organize information, illustrate ideas, and understand concepts such as cause and effect and sequencing.
  • Showing students a video, or providing with a concrete object to begin a new lesson. For example, while teaching about rocks and stones, it is useful to place different types of stones on tables for the learners to see and touch.

The above discussion provides some of the most effective ways to use scaffolding strategies in education. Teachers must provide a lot of support at the start of the scaffolding process. Then, they remove their support in stages. This sequential decrease in the degree of support makes up the scaffolding process. At each step, this process gives confidence and ability to learn a new concept or skill. Each classroom has a different type of Scaffolding, depending upon the task, students’ prior knowledge and the resources available for learning. 

Key takeaways about Scaffolding in Education

1. The purpose of using scaffolds is to make sure that every student learns something.

2. There should always be a balance between giving too much support and removing it gradually.

3. It is very important to keep track of what you do during your lessons. You will need to record how many times you gave feedback, when you did it, etc.

4. Use multiple methods of scaffolding.

5. Try out different things like drawing, writing, singing, dancing, playing games, role plays, etc.

6. Make sure that you teach everything thoroughly before moving onto another topic.

7. Always try to find time to review what was taught earlier.