Scaffolding is a teaching strategy that involves giving a student progressively more difficult learning tasks as the student progresses.
The first task is relatively easy. When the student has mastered that task, then the teacher presents another task that is slightly more difficult.
Scaffolding Theory in Education
The concept of scaffolding builds upon Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and is considered a tool within the sociocultural theory of education.
However, the term “scaffolding” was first used by Dr. Jerome Bruner, who defined the term as:
“[Scaffolding is] a process that enables a child or novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted efforts” (Wood et al., 1976, p. 90).
Dr. Bruner was a famous psychologist that developed several respected theories in educational psychology and impacted the careers of famous scholars, including Dr. Howard Gardner.
Scaffolding Examples in Education
- Providing hints – if a student is struggling to find the answer or know what the next step is, the teacher can provide some hints to give them a nudge in the right direction.
- Modelling – a kindergarten teacher demonstrates to her students that when she gets stuck counting, she stops and starts over again.
- Probing questions – a teacher can use the Socratic method to ask students a series of questions that will help them find the answer for themselves.
- Gradual release of responsibility – A strategy where the teacher starts by modelling, then doing the tasks with the students, then allowing the students to do the task on their own.
- Guided practice – A version of gradual release of responsibility where learning transitions from teacher-centered to student-centered as the student’s abilities progress.
- Providing supportive resources – before discussing an issue, the teacher provides a handout with facts that students can use; at the end of the discussion the students engage in a reflection activity.
- Visual aids – A type of supportive resource is a visual aid, which can be put on the wall so students can look to the aids to be kept on track or receive tips.
- Manipulatives – In math classes, students are provided with manipulatives (such as wooden blocks) to practice. As the students’ math skills develop, the manipulative scaffolds are removed so students can do the tasks unaided.
- Graphic organizers – after students have encountered a lot of complex information, a teacher can use a graphic organizer to visually display the material and let students see how the different concepts are related.
- Giving alternatives – when children are first learning a language, they struggle with finding the right words, so the teacher can say the words aloud and the child can repeat.
- Repeating – just because a student can demonstrate they learned a concept once, doesn’t mean that learning is strong. Asking students to repeat a task helps strengthen the memory.
- Open-ended questioning – a teacher reads aloud and asks students to identify the verbs; then moves to the next step and asks the students about how the past tense words are spelled.
- Pre-lesson vocabulary (aka pre-teaching) – before reading a new chapter, the teacher explains what some of the key terms mean and gives examples.
- Range of answers – when a student can’t generate an answer on their own, the teacher can present different options and let the student choose.
- Peer learning – Sometimes teachers speak ‘over their students’ heads’. In these cases, try to get students to teach one another. Often, they’re able to speak at the same level as one another and scaffold each other’s learning.
- Differentiation based on ability groups – Teachers can split students into three groups based on ability level in order to provide additional resources for the lower group. When students in that group demonstrate competence, they move up to the next group that provides more student autonomy.
- Think aloud strategy – When a student is struggling, the teacher intervenes with a scaffold called the ‘think aloud strategy’ where the teacher and student talk through the issue to identify exactly where the student is going wrong. Once the student has gained competence, they’re challenged to do the task silently.
- Educational games – Many games use a scaffolding model, where at lower levels, students are shown supportive videos and hints, but as they move up a level, the hints are withdrawn and students are left alone to work.
- Chunking – In chunking, the teacher presents bite-sized chunks of knowledge one at a time. For example, the teacher covers half the sentence so the student can focus only on the first three words.
- Using prior knowledge – The teacher asks students about what they already know so they know where to start and how much support to provide.
- Formative assessment – Formative assessment is a central scaffolding strategy because teachers need to constantly assess students’ ability levels in order to tailor their teaching to the right level.
1. Think Aloud
Thinking out loud is a great way to model how a mathematical calculation is performed. Math can be difficult for a lot of students, but if the teacher explains the rationale behind each step in the formula, students can follow along.
By following along, students maintain engagement in the lesson. Their mind is focused on what the teacher is saying as they go through each step.
While thinking aloud, the teacher occasionally stops at certain points in the formula where she knows students will have trouble. This is because students have had difficulty at that point previously.
This pause will help students catch-up, give them an opportunity to ask a question, or give the teacher an opportunity to provide another explanation, or a simpler explanation, regarding that step.
2. Integrating Computer Games
Most educational computer games have different levels of difficulty. Lower levels are much simpler and give students an opportunity to build foundation skills and understand how the game is played.
For example, when teaching young children about the concept of force in a physics lesson, computer games can be very helpful. The teacher can explain the concepts in the game, demonstrate how it is played a few times, and then let the students have a go.
Starting at the lower level of difficulty will introduce the basic concepts as they are operationalized and help students build confidence. Once that level has been mastered, the students can move on to the next level of difficulty.
3. Alternative Explanations
Presenting information at a level students will understand is the hallmark of good teaching. A lot of time, textbook definitions can be too technical and may even contain jargon that also needs to be defined.
Therefore, when a teacher has determined that students are not understanding a new term, they have to offer alternative explanations.
There are several methods. For example, with older students, teachers can use metaphors, analogies, or real-world examples.
When it comes to young learners, just put the book aside and create the simplest and shortest definition possible. Children often need concrete examples that they have experienced directly in their lives, so using the home or school as a context will help.
4. Red, Yellow, Green Cards
Periodically checking-in with students to see if they have learned the material is a very useful scaffolding technique. It doesn’t help students if the teacher moves on to more complex material if the students don’t have a solid grasp of the foundation.
At the beginning of a lesson, the teacher distributes red, yellow, and green cards to each student. Red stands for “confused,” yellow stands for “getting there,” and green stands for “got it.”
At different times during the lesson the teacher simply asks the students to show where they’re at in understanding. This way the teacher can very quickly and efficiently determine if they need to go back and explain some concepts again, perhaps using a different explanation this time.
This kind of informal assessment helps the teacher identify what level of scaffolding is needed in that moment.
5. Creating Sub-Goals
Diving right-in to a complex learning project can be a recipe for disaster. Once the students see all the work that is required, they can start to feel overwhelmed and lose motivation instantly.
This is when creating a scaffolding of goals comes in handy. The teacher can start with having students engage the simplest tasks first. Those tasks can be built upon later in the project.
For example, if the assignment is to write a research paper, the teacher might start by assigning the students to collect 2 reference articles first. After reading the articles the teacher provides a simple worksheet that will help the students summarize each research article and identify the key points.
After students have done this step multiple times, they are ready to put all of that worksheet content together in the form of written paragraphs. Before you know it, the students have completed a fairly thorough literature review.
Scaffolding is a key tool for teachers at all levels of education. Helping students have successful learning experiences begins with making sure they have the proper foundation of knowledge and skills.
Once that foundation is established, then they can move up to more difficult challenges.
There are numerous scaffolding strategies that teachers can implement. Simply asking probing questions, giving hints, or presenting response options, can help students discover the right answer for themselves.
Providing students with needed resources or defining key terms are examples of pre-lesson scaffolding. While graphic organizers and reflection will help students consolidate learning and be prepared to take the next step up.
Ninio, A. and Bruner, J. (1978). The achievement and antecedents of labeling. Journal of Child Language, 5, 1–15.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.
Zurek, A., Torquati, J., & Acar I. (2014). Scaffolding as a tool for environmental education in early childhood. International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 2(1), 27-57.