7 Scaffolding Learning Strategies for the Classroom

What is Scaffolding in Education?

Scaffolding vs. Differentiation

Benefits of Scaffolding in Education

4 Strategies for Scaffolding in the Classroom

3 Scaffolding Learning Activities

FAQs About Scaffolding in Education

Helpful Resource Links

What is Scaffolding in Education?

Scaffolding is a classroom teaching technique in which instructors deliver lessons in distinct segments, providing less and less support as students master new concepts or material. Much like scaffolding on a building, this technique is meant to provide students with a framework for learning as they build and strengthen their understanding. When students reach the intended level of comprehension or mastery, the teacher can step back and gradually remove their support. 

For example, a middle school biology teacher may show students a video on mitosis, then have them take a short, open-book quiz aided by a glossary. After a classwide discussion on the topic, during which the teacher shows examples of mitosis and answers students’ questions, students may retake the quiz without textbooks to measure their comprehension. 

The scaffolding approach differs from traditional “independent learning” model, in which a teacher asks students to read an article as homework, write a five-page essay and hand it in by the end of the week without providing any additional structured support. (Students are typically able to ask questions, but many are hesitant.) In this scenario, students would be responsible for navigating their own way through new course content, which would likely prove challenging for students who do not learn well via independent study. 

The term “scaffolding” was first used in an educational context in the mid-1970s, coined by American psychologist Jerome Bruner. In The Child’s Conception of Language (ed. A. Sinclair, et al, 1978) Bruner describes scaffolding as: 

“…the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring.” 

Scaffolding can also be explained by the phrase “I do, we do, you do,” wherein the teacher demonstrates, guides, then hands the reins to the students.  

Scaffolding vs. Differentiation

Unlike scaffolding, which involves all students following discrete steps to master a concept, differentiation presents students with different types of lessons based on their abilities and preferences. 

For example, a teacher may assign most of the class to read a chapter of a book, then write a short paragraph discussing the chapter. However, there may be one or more students in the class for whom this type of assignment poses a challenge. For these students, the teacher may ask them to read a shortened or altered version of the text, then show they understand by answering some multiple choice questions about the text. The teacher is differentiating the type of assessments these students need in order to  be successful.    

Scaffolding and differentiation are used to achieve similar goals, in that they provide a way for educators to help students succeed while still being challenged and building upon existing knowledge. Both approaches may also be combined in a single lesson. Teachers may identify students who need differentiated lessons by first scaffolding their lessons, then determining whether students need alternative assignments to keep pace with their peers.

ScaffoldingDifferentiation
Breaks up a lesson, concept or skill into distinct units or partsPresents different students with different methods of learning
Teachers decrease their support as students progress through lessonsLessons may follow a different format for different students, with varying levels of teacher support
Enables students to develop autonomyAllows students to interact with course content in the ways most comfortable or effective for them
Example: Read a summary of a book chapter, define key vocabulary words, then read the chapter as a group and answer a short quiz.Example: Watch a video about the chapter, define key vocabulary words using a dictionary, then watch the video again and summarize out loud to the teacher.

It may take some time for teachers to identify which students respond best to scaffolding or differentiation, if they don’t receive insight from students’ previous teachers and guidance counselors. However, knowing how to effectively engage all of their students can be extremely beneficial for overall classroom management.  
The concepts of scaffolding and the “zone of proximal development” are sometimes used interchangeably, as both were developed around the same time. Psychologist Lev Vygotsy explained his zone of proximal development, or ZPD, as the difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can achieve with guidance from a teacher. Therefore, the ZPD refers to the skills a learner is on the cusp of mastering, while scaffolding provides the support needed for the student to reach successive points of comprehension.

Benefits of Scaffolding in Education

Even before it was given a name, the concept of scaffolding has proven itself an essential approach to education. Teachers find that scaffolding: 

  • Improves the likelihood that students will retain new information
  • Helps connect foundational knowledge to new concepts 
  • Engages students with their learning and tracking their own progress
  • Gives students more autonomy and independence in the classroom
  • Bridges student learning gaps in traditionally difficult course content
  • Reduces students’ feelings of frustration, confusion and negative self-perceptions in the classroom
  • Improves communication between students and teachers 
  • Allows students to “fail productively” and encourages asking for help
  • Keeps classes organized and on schedule

When both teachers and students can follow an instructional roadmap and actively participate in the transfer of knowledge, fewer students are likely to become lost and give up on difficult concepts. If a teacher chooses to scaffold differentiated lessons for certain students, overall student performance is likely to soar. 

If teachers are new to scaffolding, implementing the strategy into practice can be challenging or time consuming. However, the benefits of improved learning retention and better overall performance far outweigh the effort expended. Soon, scaffolding will become a natural part of the lesson planning process. 

4 Strategies for Scaffolding in the Classroom

No matter the instructional approach, teachers should always introduce new concepts to students in a way that meets their current level of comprehension. A tenth-grade geometry teacher wouldn’t begin a unit on the Pythagorean theorem without first ensuring that students knew what a hypotenuse was. 

Once teachers establish their students’ starting point, they can scaffold new course content by following this process: 

  • Break the new lesson into discrete units
  • Create assignments for each unit
  • Talk students through each assignment before they begin work
  • Explain the purpose of the lesson or assignment — answer the age-old question, “Why do we need to know this?”
  • Divide students into groups to discuss the assignment, plan their approach and support each other
  • Provide students with tips or examples of the completed assignment so they can compare their progress
  • Have students present their work for feedback and/or take an assessment to gauge understanding   

Examples of some of these steps can be illustrated with specific scaffolding strategies, including:

Show and tell: The teacher models a process or final product so students can see what they are meant to be creating. Show and tell can be used to demonstrate algebra equations, scientific models, artistic techniques and much more. Teachers can even extend show and tell to doing the first assignment along with the students following their initial demonstration. 

Making real-life connections: Sometimes, it can be challenging for students to understand why they need to know something or how it connects to the world outside of school. As the teacher, share an example of how an academic concept applies to your own life, then ask students if they have any similar examples. 

Start with vocabulary: If a student encounters a word they don’t recognize in a text about a new concept, they may start to feel out of their depth, and their engagement may falter. Before embarking on a new lesson or assigning independent reading, make sure students understand key vocabulary words so they don’t become lost. Again, connect new words to concepts students are already familiar with, and have students create their own vocabulary flash cards or “cheat sheets” (with examples) to refer back to. 

Use visual aids: There are countless studies demonstrating the increase in retention of visual over auditory information (like this one from the University of Tennessee). Specifically, it’s been found that seeing images or visual demonstrations helps students understand and remember key concepts better than simply listening to the teacher explain them. Charts, models, slideshows, videos and other visual tools can all support student learning. 

Not every student will feel they need the same amount of scaffolding as others; some students may be able to demonstrate certain algebraic equations after one lesson, while others may need a week’s worth of teacher demonstrations and in-class exercises before they grasp the concept. It’s best to structure lessons to serve the greatest number of learners possible at once, and build in a chance to address both high achievers and those who need extra support. 

3 Scaffolding Learning Activities

As they scaffold a lesson on new material, teachers must first confirm that students have adequate context. This can even be basic, foundational information — for example, as a teacher embarks on a lesson about the Boston Tea Party, they need to confirm that their students know where Boston is, what taxes are, why tea was so important at the time and why Britain might care if a shipload of it ended up in Boston Harbor. “No taxation without representation!” means nothing if students don’t understand what each of those words means.  

Once the teacher establishes a baseline for student understanding, whether through an in-class discussion or short exploratory quiz, they can identify the goals of the lesson and begin to create a lesson plan.

Here are some activities students can follow as they begin to explore new concepts: 

Fish bowl

Give students a topic to discuss, perhaps guided by a set of questions. Select about one quarter of the class to sit in a circle or group in the middle of the classroom. Have all other students sit around the edges of the central group and listen while this group discusses the topic. Observers are not allowed to speak while the smaller group is talking amongst themselves. 

After about 15–20 minutes of discussion, divide the smaller group up among the rest of the class and divide into new groups of equal size. The observers can now discuss what they heard with members of the smaller group, offer different perspectives, ask questions and come to new conclusions together. 

Think-alouds

This technique works well for reading comprehension exercises, but can also work for mathematical exercises. The teacher reads a passage aloud as the students follow along. Whenever the teacher reaches a potential point of confusion for students — such as an unfamiliar vocabulary word or place name — they stop and think through the issue aloud, perhaps with the aid of some predetermined questions. As they continue to read the passage aloud, the teacher will stop and pose some of their questions for the students to answer. 

Eventually, students are asked to take over reading aloud (if they are able), pausing to think through or pose questions to their classmates. 

Mind maps and concept maps

To demonstrate their grasp of a new topic, teachers can direct students to create a mind map as a visual representation of that topic. For example, if students have just learned about penguins in the Arctic, they should begin to draw a diagram with “penguin” at the center, then make “branches” off of that central topic that lead to the penguin’s characteristics, including what it eats, where it lives and what its predators are. 

In a concept map, students are asked to take everything they know about a larger topic — for instance, the Arctic — and connect all the disparate concepts they know about that topic. An Arctic concept map might connect penguins to elements of the landscape and climate, other animals and the effect of humans on their habitat. 

Often, a lack of engagement results from students not understanding the purpose of school work, or the intended end result of a certain lesson or assignment. Showing and explaining to students what they are meant to create or achieve is not giving them the answers. Rather, providing students with a blueprint can help them take ownership of the learning process and, by extension, the finished product — their new knowledge. 

FAQs About Scaffolding in Education

What’s the difference between scaffolding and differentiation?

While these are two approaches to classroom instruction, they are not interchangeable, although they can be combined. Scaffolding is the process of breaking lessons into manageable units, with the teacher providing decreasing levels of support as students grasp new concepts and master new skills. Differentiation is the act of giving certain students different types of assignments or learning engagements based on the way they receive and retain information, so as to help them succeed alongside their peers.

What are some examples of scaffolding in education?

Teachers use all sorts of scaffolding tools to help students along the path to comprehension. Show and tell, visual aids, flashcards and making real-world connections are all ways that teachers can transfer ownership of core concepts to students.

Classroom Management

This suite of courses can help teachers identify the best ways to teach diverse groups of learners, motivate students effectively and lead students responsibly through potentially difficult subject matter. 

Classroom Teaching Techniques

A number of courses in this series can help teachers implement scaffolding into their lesson plans concerning technology, critical thinking and reading comprehension.

Effective Classroom Management Solutions Certificate

Beyond ensuring that students grasp core academic concepts, teachers can use scaffolding to instill lessons in anti-bullying, positive social skills and inclusion. 

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