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Building Better Instruction with Scaffolding

Patti  West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
Senior Manager
Teaching and Learning Innovations






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Picture it… you’re touring any major city in the world, taking in the landmarks and legends of your dreams. You’re even seeing amazing new construction that challenges the mind. What do you see along with those glorious visions? Well, practically speaking, you’ re likely to see scaffolding, that familiar equipment that helps to stabilize structures during growth and development. The assumption is that those platforms are temporary and that eventually, those magnificent structures will stand on their own, without support or assistance.

For most people, it’s easy to apply this same thinking to learning, especially with young children. The picture of an adult holding a toddler’s hands as the child takes those first tentative steps is universal. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky famously said, “What a child can do today with assistance, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.” Interestingly, though, embracing those same kinds of support for older students is not so universal.

To best understand the importance of scaffolding instruction and explore whether it is important for older students, let’s return to that construction metaphor. According to construction industry experts, the foundational benefits of scaffolding are:

  • Ensuring safety
  • Expanding access
  • Boosting productivity

So, does the metaphor extend to instruction, particularly for older students? Do those benefits translate to teaching and learning? Is scaffolding really necessary? Here are a few reasons why scaffolding is essential for meaningful growth in older students:

Ensuring Safety

Learning new skills and concepts is a risky business, regardless of age or development. For students, every time we ask them to learn something new, they risk failure. Scaffolding can mitigate some of that risk. For struggling students, in particular, feelings of insecurity about new concepts or skills can get in the way of their learning. After all, many of these students have experienced failure with new or challenging concepts and skills in the past. By chunking the learning and connecting the new ideas to what they have already mastered, scaffolding can help to create feelings of success, reducing anxiety and increasing motivation. Imagine that students are writing an essay; rather than simply setting students off to write a fully-developed essay, teachers might ask students to begin with a single paragraph or even a less formal outline. Once students have successfully written a solid paragraph, the path to a full essay seems more feasible and less daunting.

Expanding Access

Scaffolding can allow teachers and learners to access places that are seemingly out of reach. You might not be able to reach 17 stories high from the ground, but if you start by reaching something that is only inches away and keep going a little at a time, you can certainly get there eventually. Scaffolding that acts as a bridge between existing knowledge and skills and new learning helps to cut down on the distance; while the journey to the new learning might take additional steps, it is certainly within reach this way. For example, when students are reading and analyzing poetry, considering all the various elements that go into a complex poem can be overwhelming when taken as a whole. However, teachers can break down the process into parts and allow students to analyze specific components individually before ultimately moving students to the stage where they can analyze the poem as a whole.

Boosting Productivity

Time is perhaps the most valuable resource in education today, and it presents challenges for both teachers and students by way of teacher preparation and instructional time. The value of time is certainly no less important for older students and their teachers! Every educator needs to find ways to utilize every second of instruction to the best possible impact.

Scaffolding can provide the teacher with insights into strengths, weaknesses, misperceptions, etc, and that insight allows the teacher to make efficient, strategic choices while planning instruction, cutting down on any lost or ineffective use of time. By breaking the instruction into chunks, students’ mastery of or strength with specific components of the overall concept or skill can help teachers to have a more precise understanding of where challenges exist so that they can make strategic choices in instructional planning. For example, if a teacher is working on citation skills and students struggle with paraphrasing appropriately, the teacher knows that the issue isn’t understanding how to cite or a need for additional practice with citations, but instead is related to the specific skill of paraphrasing.

Additionally, well-planned scaffolding can be used by multiple students or groups of students, allowing the teacher to differentiate instruction effectively across student needs. For students, scaffolding can help to eliminate distractions, allowing them to focus on the critical new skill or concept at the center of their new learning. A standard scaffolding practice that falls into this area is something like pre-teaching new vocabulary. When the vocabulary is taught before students tackle a challenging new idea, they can focus on understanding the complex concept, rather than getting caught up in individual words that are challenging.

Additional Resources and Follow-up

To highlight the importance of scaffolding and provide concrete resources to support scaffolded instruction, the Teaching and Learning Team will soon release additional blog posts exploring other elements of scaffolding AND new Source Credibility resources, including a fully scaffolded lesson with all supporting materials.

Also, register below for our Source Credibility webinars on November 7th, when we’ll talk about the importance of teaching students the thought process involved in being an analytical consumer of information in the modern era and launch the new materials.