What Is Scaffolding in Education?

Instructional scaffolding, or simply scaffolding, is an instructional strategy which helps students learn new skills by providing appropriate, flexible, temporary supports in their learning experience. It’s an iterative process of building a learning bridge between old and new material by systematically supporting new skills while building upon prior knowledge and experience. As new skills are mastered, the supports are gradually removed according to the pace and understanding of each individual student. According to Vygosky, children develop higher level cognitive skills when they’re given opportunities for scaffolding from adults or peers who are more capable than them. Ultimately, scaffolding’s learning goals are to achieve a stronger understanding and learning independence.

Scaffolding works best when it’s individualized for each student, since every student has a different learning process. In a traditional classroom setting, it’s extremely difficult to address the individual scaffolding needs of each student. However, modern edtech software efficiently allows teachers to personalize scaffolding by determining a zone of proximal development for each student. When such software is not available, differentiated groups usually make the process more tenable for a classroom.

Zone of Proximal Development

In their 2014 literature review, Jumaat and Tasir (2014) identify four types of scaffolding:

  • Procedural scaffolding: which makes sure students use the available tools
  • Conceptual scaffolding: which helps students prioritize learning objectives
  • Strategic scaffolding: which helps students solve complex problems using different learning paths
  • Metacognitive scaffolding: which helps students self-assess throughout the learning path

The Importance of Scaffolding

The concept of instructional scaffolding has been around since the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that researchers began studying how best to use it to improve learning outcomes. Today, there are many different types of scaffolding, including modeling, feedback, guided discovery, and peer instruction. Instructors must be careful about how much scaffolding they provide because too much can lead learners to become dependent on the instructor rather than themselves. Too little scaffolding can cause students to lose interest over time and never master the material.

In order to create effective scaffoldings, instructors should consider how well they know each student and what type of scaffolding will help them achieve mastery. For example, some students prefer to work alone while others thrive when given opportunities to collaborate. Some students like to watch videos and listen to lectures while others enjoy doing hands-on activities. By understanding what works best for individual students, instructors can design scaffoldings that maximize learning.

The Northern Illinois University’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center summarizes the benefits of scaffolding in a variety of ways, pointing out that scaffolding often provides deeper learning and discovery for students, increases the likelihood of student success, individualizes instruction, and helps create opportunities for peer instruction.

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Why use Instructional Scaffolding?

One of the main benefits of scaffolding is that it creates a supportive environment where students are encouraged to take ownership over their learning. Guiding the learning process in steps, while keeping the intrinsic cognitive load ideal for individuals or groups with similar developmental levels, scaffolding will make it easier to achieve learning objectives. By providing guidance and feedback, instructors help students understand how to solve problems and make decisions. In addition, scaffolding supports students in developing critical thinking and problem solving skills.

A good example of instructional scaffolding is the teacher who guides students through a lesson step by step. As students work through each step, they receive immediate feedback and encouragement. Once the lesson is complete, the instructor can provide additional information about concepts covered throughout the lesson.

It’s important to recognize that some students aren’t comfortable asking for a teacher’s support. Scaffolding that is intentionally built into the curriculum with supports and other strategies will help engage these hard-to-reach students.

Guidelines for Implementing Scaffolding

So how do you implement scaffolding for your students? Mastering teaching techniques, utilizing best educational practices, and breaking learning outcomes into smaller tasks, are fundamental to scaffolding and fostering positive learning outcomes. Skill acquisition comes in many forms, and there are many scaffolding metaphors depending on the learning objectives and individual students. So choose strategies that work for you and your students. And remember: if you want your students to understand something, don’t just tell them; show them. Ask them questions and give them feedback. Then let them figure out the answer on their own.

The best way to begin scaffolding with students is to conduct a diagnostic assessment of each student to find individual zones of proximal development.

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Many common scaffolding strategies have evolved as best practices, including the following teaching techniques:

  • Break down lessons into smaller learning tasks
  • Provide support and guidance through each content task
  • Make sure students have the answers and tools for success
  • Individualize scaffolds based on individual student learning styles
  • Use edtech software to track each individual’s zone of proximal development
  • Engage students through individual, culturally-appropriate examples and tools
  • Reinforce content already learned by the student
  • Give students previews of upcoming content
  • Provide frequent feedback in both directions
  • Ensure scaffolding for all students, not just those struggling
  • Create learning goals to help motivate students towards achievement
  • Model concepts and encourage students and peers to participate
  • Encourage students to discuss concepts out loud with the teacher and their peers
  • Use visual aids, music, video, and gamification to help engage students in the content
  • Provide progress gauges to help students see progress towards a goal
  • Group students into groups that facilitate discussion at similar developmental levels
  • Students who feel responsible for their own learning will take ownership of their education

Finally, remember to remove scaffolding when students don’t need it! By monitoring progress through regular diagnostic and formative assessments, even in a complex learning environment, you will know when students have mastered the content with positive learning outcomes.