What is Scaffolding in Education and How to Apply it to Teaching

In educational media and literature, this term refers to a process in which the student solves a problem with the support of a teacher or other more experienced person. In this case, the task is so complex that the student definitely can’t do it alone, but with support it is within his power says Scaffold Contractors Kent.

This support is denoted by the metaphor of “scaffolding” or “props. The better a student masters a new skill or knowledge, the less he needs these “supports,” and eventually, the teacher removes them.

To make the concept of scaffolding even more transparent, American teacher Rebecca Alber explains its opposite: “To tell students, ‘Read a nine-page research paper, write a detailed essay on the topic of that paper, and turn it in on Wednesday.

If the teacher wants students to understand the article and remember the main points, following the logic of scaffolding, before assigning the essay writing, he or she will review the material with the students and explain the key terms. Even better is to break the text into parts and read each piece in class, discussing it with the whole class, says Alber.

Scaffolding theory can be used not only in a student-teacher pair but also in a student-digital pair. An example of using scaffolding in a combination of teaching and digital technology is the use of the alphabetizer tool. When writing any academic paper, you should cite the literature sources that you used to write the research or other scholarly work. Typically, students write down these sources chaotically, but formatting rules require orderliness. In this situation, the alphabetizer tool helps you organize your reference list in alphabetical order. In this case, the student solves his problem with the support of digital technology. But in this article, writers from WowEssays will consider the application of scaffolding in a student-teacher pair.

The Main Principles and Criteria of Scaffolding

The theory of scaffolding in learning was first articulated in 1976 by American psychologists Jerome Bruner, David Wood, and Gail Ross in The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.

“The process of scaffolding,” the authors wrote, “consists mainly of the adult controlling those elements of the task that are initially beyond the student’s capabilities, thus allowing the student to concentrate only on those components within his or her power.

It is worth noting that this work described the Teaching of preschool children and was not about a teacher but simply about a more experienced adult – a tutor, tutor, or mentor. Nevertheless, the principles described by Bruner and his colleagues soon came to be considered universal, and in 1979 the first scientific work appeared in which the prominent participants in the interaction within the scaffolding framework were no longer a child and an adult but a pupil and a teacher.

The principles of scaffolding described by Bruner and his co-authors are as follows:

  • Engage Attention. The teacher must first get the student interested and ready to follow the rules to complete the task.
  • Limit freedom of action. The teacher should simplify the task by reducing the number of moves required to solve it. The teacher takes all the “superfluous” measures and allows the pupil to concentrate on one or several steps – the main ones.
  • Keep the attention on the goal. Since pupils tend to get distracted, the teacher has to keep the lesson’s purpose in mind. However, even if he/she sees that the student’s efforts take the latter away from the goal of the study (for example, when instead of conjugating a verb, the student delved into its etymology), it is worth encouraging them so that the student does not lose motivation. It is also worth bearing in mind that students tend to repeat previous successes. Instead of taking on a new, slightly more difficult task, they may strive for more straightforward, more routine activities. Therefore, it is up to the teacher to motivate the student to take a new step.
  • Emphasize important details. The teacher should draw the student’s attention to meaningful elements of the task. This way, the student can notice the discrepancies between how he/she performs the job and its correct solution.
  • Avoid frustrating the student. It should be more comfortable to work on the tasks accompanied by the teacher than without him/her. Considering the risk of the student becoming too dependent on the teacher is necessary.
  • Demonstrate solutions. The teacher should show the solution to the problem so that the student understands what is expected of him or her. The teacher can also ask the student to explain how he or she sees the solution and try to implement it. The teacher can then repeat the solution the student demonstrated, but in a better form. After that, it will be the student’s turn to repeat the teacher’s actions more effectively than in the first attempt.

In 1983, Arthur Appleby and Judith Langer supplemented these principles with five criteria for scaffolding:

  • Purposefulness: the task should have a clear goal toward which the student’s actions will be directed.
  • Capability: the task should be difficult enough to solve independently but amenable to the student’s efforts with the teacher’s assistance.
  • Structured: the task should be organized to facilitate the natural flow of the learner’s thoughts, pushing him to the right solution.
  • Collaboration: the learner should perceive the teacher not as an evaluator but as a collaborator.
  • Internalization: as knowledge and skills are internalized by the learner, external “props” should be gradually removed.

Thus, scaffolding is a temporary support for the student, which should gradually be phased out. Responsibility for the task is first divided between the teacher and the student and then completely transferred to the latter.

What Does Science Say about the Effectiveness of Scaffolding

In 1975, Bruner’s colleague David Wood, co-authored with David Middleton, published a paper in which he described a process similar to scaffolding. In this study, mothers taught their children to assemble a constructor. Children who built in pairs with their mothers and received advice from them produced significantly more complex designs than those who built alone. Those children were most successful whose mothers adjusted their support strategies based on how well they were doing. When the work progressed easily, the help became minimal. When children encountered difficulties, mothers gave clearer instructions or showed them how to complete the task.

In 1990, similar results were obtained in a study that compared scaffolding with learning by the discovery (when a child finds the solution to a given problem on his own). In the experiment, some children worked on the task while maintaining a dialogue with their mothers, and the other group worked alone, receiving only occasional corrective feedback. As a result, the first group coped with the task much more successfully.

A study in 2000, which, however, involved only one person, has shown that scaffolding can be useful in learning a new language. A six-year-old participant in the experiment, who spoke Farsi, was learning English. He was first taught individual words and phrases, then asked closed-ended questions, and then questions requiring more meaningful answers. This gradual increase in difficulty helped the child improve his language skills without unnecessary stress or frustration.

Finally, the author of the 2003 study notes that when applying the principles of scaffolding, students should not be perceived as passive executors of the teacher’s instructions. It also contradicts Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development, according to which a student is an independent researcher.

How to Apply Scaffolding

British teacher Saul McLeod, citing researcher Debbie Silver, gives these recommendations:

  • Assess students’ current knowledge and skills related to the lesson’s topic.
  • Relate the lesson’s content to what students already understand and can do.
  • Break tasks down into smaller, more manageable elements and comment on how to complete these subtasks.
  • Use prompts.

The authors of the textbook Methods, Strategies, and Techniques for Teaching that Meet the Needs of All Students complete this list by describing basic scaffolding techniques, citing the work of education researchers Kathleen Hogan and Michael Pressley.

Thus, the first step in using scaffolding is usually modeling, demonstrating “behaviors that show how [the student] should feel, think, or act in a proposed situation.” An example of modeling might be the “thinking out loud” technique: the teacher goes through a task and voices their thoughts related to it. For example, the teacher can “think aloud” while they break a new word for the students into parts so that it becomes easier for them to read.

It is equally important to explain what is being studied, why, when, and how to use it. In the beginning, the explanations should be detailed and often repeated. But as the student progresses, they can become less and less verbose and contain only basic clues.

In addition, it is important to ask students to participate more actively in the learning process – this will increase their ownership and responsibility for the result. And the teacher can then give positive feedback or adjust the student’s actions.

The authors of the manual then provide several concrete examples of scaffolding:

  • The teacher demonstrates a model of what students should accomplish. For example, they are expected to achieve the outcome of a specific task. Alternatively, the teacher can model the desired process – for example, showing a multi-level science experiment. The main thing is for the students to understand what results are expected of them before they take on the work independently.
  • The teacher presents the lesson’s topic in a simplified form or gives a simpler task and then gradually increases the difficulty. For example, the teacher might divide the lesson into several mini-lessons or an algebra problem into several subtasks. Between each mini-lesson, the teacher checks how well the students understand the basic ideas, gives them a chance to practice, and explains how these skills will help them solve more difficult problems.
  • The teacher describes the idea, task, or process differently. The teacher may describe the new idea using graphs and drawings. Or, for example, he may ask students to formulate the idea in their own words. The goal is to show the subject matter from different angles to make it easier for students to understand the idea correctly.
  • Students have explained the key concepts of a complex text before reading it. The teacher describes terms that are likely to be difficult for students to understand using metaphors, analogies, associations, and other strategies. As students read the text, this glossary will provide them with “reinforcement” that will increase their confidence in their abilities, increase their interest in the text, and help them understand and remember its content.

Vicki Mata is a writer who began her active career as a student. She was editor and author of the student newspaper and has won many writing contests. Vicki brings her experiences to life for the WowEssays blog, where she provides valuable student advice.