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Scaffolding is the process of giving support to learners at the appropriate time at the appropriate level to meet the needs of the individual (Pritchard 2009, p25). It refers to the adult observing the child and recognising the stage of learning they are at, from this they can provide the support the learner needs to reach the next stage. It is a form of support for the development and learning of children and young people (Rasmussen, 2001; p570). Holton and Clarke (2006) define scaffolding to be an act of teaching that supports the immediate construction of knowledge by the learner; and provides the basis for the future independent learning of the individual, which supports both the definition given by Pritchard (2009) and by Rasmussen (2001).

The word ‘scaffolding’ was first coined by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) but is heavily influenced by Vygotsky. Wood, Bruner and Ross suggest that scaffolding has six key functions. These are

  • recruitment (engaging the child in an interesting and meaningful activity),

  • reduction (developing the activity around manageable components),

  • maintenance (ensuring that the child is on-task and on-task for a solution),

  • marking (accentuating the main parts of the activity),

  • control (reducing the frustration level of the activity) and

  • demonstration (providing a model of the solution method for the child).

It can be argued that scaffolding reduces the cognitive load on a learner because the elements of the learning that are initially out of the learner’s capacity can be controlled by the scaffolder. Good scaffolding lures the learner into activities that produce solutions that the learner themselves can recognise. It will also involve the tutor understanding the theory of the problem and how it could be completed and also the performance characteristics of the learner in order to offer moment by moment contingent support.

Holton and Clarke (2005) suggest that there are three types of scaffolding, expert, reciprocal, and self. Expert scaffolding involves a scaffolder with specific responsibility for the learning of others, reciprocal scaffolding takes place where two (or more) people are involved in working collaboratively on a common task and self-scaffolding refers to situations in which an individual is able to provide scaffolding for themselves when any problem or concept that is new to the individual is being tackled.

Holton and Clarke (2005) argue that there are two domains to scaffolding learning, conceptual scaffolding, and heuristic scaffolding. In Conceptual Scaffolding, a learner is guided in terms of what to consider, how to create associations between ideas, and how these associations form a supportive scaffolding structure. Heuristic scaffolding relates to enabling a person to discover or learn something independently. It is argued that metacognition takes place within all scaffolding techniques. Metacognition is defined as an awareness and understanding of one's own thought processes.

Assisted performance defines what a child can do with help, with the support of the environment, of others, and of the self. Bliss, Askew, and Macrae (1996) actually suggest assisted performance as the most appropriate approach in whole-class teaching (as scaffolding requires one to one or small group). Assisted performance is more closely related to scaffolding than to Piaget’s work. Teachers must also take care, not to over question students and therefore ‘frighten’ them into not answering

Applebee (1986) identified five criteria for effective scaffolding. Scaffolding refers to the idea that specialized instructional supports need to be in place in order to best facilitate learning when students are first introduced to a new subject. It is argued that in order for scaffolding to be effective, there needs to be student ownership of a learning event and that there needs to be an appropriateness to the structured task which would enable learning to take place, without the scaffolding turning into assisted performance. Applebee also argues that there needs to be a structured learning environment and a shared responsibility for the learning taking place within that environment. Finally, there needs to be a transfer of control from the teacher to the learner which relates to Bruner’s (1976) handover principle. Assisted performance is actually a necessity in whole-class teaching. It is a more practical version of scaffolding. It isn’t about telling the pupils exactly what to do and how (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988).

There are many practical implications of using the concept of scaffolding to shape pedagogical practice. In the context of secondary education, there is often pressure to ensure that the ‘content’ of the curriculum is delivered to ensure results. As a result of this, some teachers may find that they slip more frequently into transmissive teaching, rather than scaffolding (with individual learners) or assisted performance in a whole-class situation, which would inhibit the learners’ progress. However, scaffolding is a valuable and useful pedagogical technique that can be employed in any learning event to encourage independence in learners through the experience of building these learners up to find their own solution and take ownership of their own learning.

Scaffolding on its own may not necessarily be an appropriate pedagogical method to bring about learning in a group of learners, however, it could be argued that it can be effective with learners on a one-to-one basis. Scaffolding is almost impossible to do on a whole class level as it involves scaffolding the learning with an individual on a one-to-one basis. This is not conducive to whole-class teaching as the majority of classes within a secondary school setting involve a group of at least 20 students, meaning that scaffolding is not a practical pedagogical method for whole-class teaching. Taking into account the arguments from Applebee, teachers must ensure that the scaffolding is appropriate for the learning taking place and that the learners must feel ownership of the task.

Scaffolding Strategies

1. Show and Tell

How many of us say that we learn best by seeing something rather than hearing about it? Modeling for students is a cornerstone of scaffolding, in my experience. Have you ever interrupted someone with “Just show me!” while they were in the middle of explaining how to do something? Every chance you have, show, or demonstrate to students exactly what they are expected to do.

  • Try a fishbowl activity, where a small group in the center is circled by the rest of the class; the group in the middle, or fishbowl, engages in an activity, modeling how it’s done for the larger group.

  • Always show students the outcome or product before they do it. If a teacher assigns a persuasive essay or inquiry-based science project, a model should be presented side-by-side with a criteria chart or rubric. You can guide students through each step of the process with the model of the finished product in hand.

  • Use think alouds, which will allow you to model your thought process as you read a text, solve a problem, or design a project. Remember that children’s cognitive abilities are still in development, so opportunities for them to see developed, critical thinking are essential.

2. Tap into Prior Knowldge

Ask students to share their own experiences, hunches, and ideas about the content or concept of study and have them relate and connect it to their own lives. Sometimes you may have to offer hints and suggestions, leading them to the connections a bit, but once they get there, they will grasp the content as their own.

Launching the learning in your classroom from the prior knowledge of your students and using this as a framework for future lessons is not only a scaffolding technique—many would agree it’s just plain good teaching.

3. Give Time to Talk

All learners need time to process new ideas and information. They also need time to verbally make sense of and articulate their learning with the community of learners who are engaged in the same experience and journey. As we all know, structured discussions really work best with children regardless of their level of maturation.

If you aren’t weaving in think-pair-share, turn-and-talk, triad teams, or some other structured talking time throughout the lesson, you should begin including this crucial strategy on a regular basis.

4. Pre-teach Vocabulary

Sometimes referred to as front-loading vocabulary, this is a strategy that we teachers don’t use enough. Many of us, myself included, are guilty of sending students all alone down the bumpy, muddy path known as Challenging Text—a road booby-trapped with difficult vocabulary. We send them ill-prepared and then are often shocked when they lose interest, create a ruckus, or fall asleep.

Pre-teaching vocabulary doesn’t mean pulling a dozen words from the chapter and having kids look up definitions and write them out—we all know how that will go. Instead, introduce the words to kids in photos or in context with things they know and are interested in. Use analogies and metaphors, and invite students to create a symbol or drawing for each word. Give time for small-group and whole-class discussion of the words. Not until they’ve done all this should the dictionaries come out. And the dictionaries will be used only to compare with those definitions they’ve already discovered on their own.

With the dozen or so words front-loaded, students are ready, with you as their guide, to tackle that challenging text.

5. Use Visual Aids

Graphic organizers, pictures, and charts can all serve as scaffolding tools. Graphic organizers are very specific in that they help kids visually represent their ideas, organize information, and grasp concepts such as sequencing and cause and effect.

A graphic organizer shouldn’t be The Product but rather a scaffolding tool that helps guide and shape students’ thinking. Some students can dive right into discussing, or writing an essay, or synthesizing several different hypotheses, without using a graphic organizer of some sort, but many of our students benefit from using one with a difficult reading or challenging new information. Think of graphic organizers as training wheels—they’re temporary and meant to be removed.

6. Pause, Ask Questions, Pause, Review

This is a wonderful way to check for understanding while students read a chunk of difficult text or learn a new concept or content. Here’s how this strategy works: Share a new idea from discussion or the reading, then pause (providing think time), and then ask a strategic question, pausing again.

You need to design the questions ahead of time, making sure they’re specific, guiding, and open-ended. (Even great questions fail if we don’t give think time for responses, so hold out during that Uncomfortable Silence.) Keep kids engaged as active listeners by calling on someone to give the gist of what was just discussed, discovered, or questioned. If the class seems stuck on the questions, provide an opportunity for students to discuss in pairs.

With all the diverse learners in our classrooms, there is a strong need for teachers to learn and experiment with new scaffolding strategies. I often say to teachers I support that they have to slow down in order to go quickly. Scaffolding a lesson may, in fact, mean that it takes longer to teach, but the end product is of far greater quality and the experience much more rewarding for all involved.

Further Reading

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