A key concept in education for the last decade has been the idea of scaffolding. Scaffolding refers to breaking up new concepts so that they can be learned more easily. It’s a process that many teachers have used for decades but that has recently received much more attention as an instructional approach.
By implementing scaffolding, teachers can improve the likeliness that students will grasp new materials and retain what they’ve learned.
Scaffolding vs Differentiation
Occasionally, teachers confuse scaffolding and differentiation. However, the two are distinct. In a report issued by the Tennessee Department of Education, differentiation was defined as a framework in which different students received different methods of learning. Scaffolding, on the other hand, was defined as breaking up learning into chunks so that students tackled increasingly more complex material.
In practice, differentiated instruction is characterized by attempts to change the activities that students use to learn about a topic. This might mean providing different materials to students with different learning styles. For some students, highly visual materials may be appropriate, while other students might be more highly tactile learners.
Scaffolding, on the other hand, breaks up even differentiated lessons so that they are delivered in increasingly complex chunks. It breaks up learning new topics into stages in which old ideas are connected to new ones and students are led from guided to independent instruction. There are several ways that this can be done.
There are many different scaffolding interventions that can support learning. Some of these interventions include hands-on activities while others rely on the teacher to explain related concepts. The task that teachers use should be appropriate to what is being learned and appeal to the strengths of the students working through the materials.
Throughout the scaffolding process, a heavy emphasis should be placed on connecting old concepts to new ones to set a foundation for learning. Here are just a few of the ways that teachers can set the stage for teaching difficult new concepts.
Advance organizers deliver a preview of more complicated materials yet to come. The organizer serves as an introduction and provides basic principles about how students should think about the material. The advance organizer also takes what students have already learned and connects it to the material yet to come. This helps provide a strong foundation for learning new materials.
What are some specific examples of organizers? Graphic organizers provide visuals that students can engage with. During the introductory lesson, students can fill in missing pictures of the visual. This extra level of engagement helps students to better understand the basic principles that will underlie more complex tasks.
Expository organizers are among the most common types of organizers because they are straightforward in their nature. This organizer only requires that teachers tell students what the goal of the lesson is. Teachers verbalize and connect previous lessons to the current lesson and how that sets the basis for future lessons.
A creative form of organizing includes storytelling. This takes the verbalized expository organizer and puts a creative spin on it. With this organizer, teachers take previous concepts and lessons and frame them in a story. The story also includes concepts that will be learned in upcoming lessons. By framing past and current principles in a narrative frame, the teacher creates a more engaging framework in which students learn their lessons.
Concept and Mind Maps
Concept and mind maps are simply visual graphics that show relationships between learning concepts. These maps show previous concepts students have learned related to new concepts that will be encountered. These kinds of maps are especially appealing to visual learners, making them valuable when differentiating and scaffolding learning for highly visual learners.
A mind map is drawn so that related topics are connected by branches, with one central concept uniting them all. For instance, take the concept of mind mapping to make it the central category. Now, think up three major ‘branches’ related to mind maps. One branch could be creativity, another could be planning, and a third one could be beneficial.
The creativity branch could be made of smaller branches such as ideas and innovation. The planning branch could be made of smaller branches that include strategies and goals. Finally, the benefits branch could include fun and simple. Now, you have a mind map as the central concept made of three branches, each with their own smaller branches. You can also find connections from different branches.
When applied to education, teachers can use this to connect almost any type of concept. For instance, you may be teaching a science class about cellular structure. As the central concept, you might have human cells. Then, the branches could be composed of stem cells, bone cells, blood cells, and so forth. Each cell could then possess its own set of smaller branches describing features unique to that cell. This approach helps students see the features of each type of human cell but also similar features between cells.
Sometimes, the best scaffolding technique is the one that teachers are most familiar with. There’s always a place for simply teaching students, and sometimes teachers can be most effective by giving a straightforward lesson that prepares students for more complex work to come. A prime example of this is language.
When dealing with language, students are given vocabulary lessons prior to reading something difficult. This helps them because students tend to become disengaged whenever they are reading and struggle to understand the words in their assignment. Reviewing particularly difficult vocabulary words before the reading helps students understand how to pronounce these words and what they mean.
Teachers can review the reading assignment and identify words that the students might find some particular difficulties with and provide handouts for the students for use during the vocabulary review.
Teachers can also add an engaging element to this process prior to reviewing the words with students. Before reviewing the word list, students can bring the students together in groups and ask them to brainstorm what the words might mean. The teacher can then review the class’ ideas to see what similar words they came up with. Finally, the teacher can explain what the word means and the class can identify which brain stormed words were accurate.
The Benefits of Scaffolding
There are a number of benefits to scaffolding instructional approaches in the classroom. Some of these benefits are related to the fact that they have a personal, emotional impact on students. Other benefits to scaffolding include the positive outcomes in grades. Here are just some of the ways that scaffolding can benefit students.
Scaffolding Improves Comprehension
Each student is different and learns at a different pace. Because of this, some students often fall behind. They simply don’t comprehend the material and find themselves being outpaced by their peers. Scaffolding can address this issue.
Scaffolding is particularly effective when teaching about a new topic, which is when many students struggle. New materials provide unique challenges since students are asked to learn about entirely new topics with which they have little experience. Scaffolding is an approach proven to increase learning outcomes.
Scaffolding Enhances Problem Solving
Scaffolding helps teachers to connect already learned concepts with material that is part of a new lesson. This previously learned material helps set a foundation for new materials to be learned. Students also start thinking about new materials using some of the same approaches they used to tackle their previously learned materials.
Connected old concepts to new ones guides students in understanding how to deal with new materials. This may involve seeing connections when discussing a new type of cell in a science class or could involve remembering how they dealt with math problems in previous lessons and using similar approaches to dealing with more complex math challenges.
Scaffolding Creates Higher Engagement
An important way that scaffolding works is by improving student engagement. There are a variety of activities that teachers can use that get students more directly involved with their class work. Plus, the close support teachers can provide during scaffolded instruction can keep students from becoming discouraged.
By building on knowledge a student already knows, it keeps the student from getting lost when learning new content and keeps them involved in their lessons. Scaffolding reduces student frustration and keeps them interested in what they’re learning.
Scaffolding Creates a More Positive Classroom
Scaffolding is an approach that can help reduce frustration and anxiety in the classroom. These two factors can have a number of negative outcomes and push students away from learning. Scaffolding takes these negative factors out of the class by removing typical points at which students struggle. Traditionally, teachers teach a lesson and then students independently practice.
Scaffolding creates a supportive environment with higher levels of engagement between students, teachers, and their peers. Using scaffolding brings together a number of positive practices associated with improved academic outcomes, including peer learning and increased teacher support.
These classrooms integrate lower stakes activities in which students are free to fail without having to worry that they will have their grades suffer. They can feel free to experiment with a teacher providing support or can enjoy the support of their peers as they work through complex materials.
Scaffolding creates a more easygoing classroom with a much more supportive structure in which students don’t have to stress themselves out about how well they do. This approach makes it easier to encourage student innovation and participation and lessons the anxieties students feel about coming to class.
Every student has one particular subject that they don’t feel confident about, and scaffolding can remove the negative perceptions they might have of those classes.
Challenges of Implementing Scaffolding
There are challenges that every teacher has to face when it comes to implementing scaffolding. For instance, scaffolding can take a good bit of time to set up originally. Teachers have to review existing lessons, identify points in their lessons where scaffolding is needed, and come up with scaffolding activities that can enhance learning. This can be time consuming when teachers first attempt to implement scaffolding. However, as with many other shifts in teaching style, the bulk of the work needs to be done when a teacher is first changing their style. Activities can be reused later on and speed up the planning process.
It’s choosing the activities themselves that can pose a problem for teachers. As previously pointed out, scaffolding is different from differentiated teaching. Scaffolding activities have to be able to meet the strengths of students with very different learning styles.
Teachers have to take the time to understand the strengths of their class and come up with activities that will be broadly appealing to students of many learning styles. Alternatively, they may have to identify different scaffolding activities individual students can complete that appeal to their strengths. It’s this process of identifying strengths and weaknesses that can be time consuming.
Appropriately scaffolding instruction can be particularly difficult for novice teachers. More experienced teachers often have an easier time identifying different learning styles of students in their classes. These teachers often have an easier time adapting their lessons to meeting these different learning styles. For new teachers, it can be harder to identify what works within their classes and how to differentiate their scaffolding activities in such a way that no student is left behind.
However, one of the most difficult aspects of scaffolding can be knowing when to let go and stop scaffolding for students. After a period of introducing students to new materials, teachers have to be able to let their students work independently on their materials.
It can sometimes be difficult to understand just when to let go. It’s also human nature to want to retain control. However, it’s important for teachers to understand when to stop holding their students’ hands and let them progress forward independently instead of providing scaffolding for the students to use. However, if teachers adhere to a four-stage format, they are more likely to implement successful scaffolding in the classroom.
The Four Stages of Scaffolding
North Illinois University recommends a four-stage method of scaffolding that progresses from teacher led activity to independent learning. In the first stage, an instructor introduces the subject and performs a task related to that subject. During this period, they connect previously learned material to material that is about to be introduced and show how a newly learned task can be completed. This is a period that allows students to observe and later model the teacher’s behavior.
Afterward, the teacher can ask for the class as a whole to participate in completing a similar activity. During this time, the teacher takes feedback from the class about what to do next when completing the task. Some activities may lend themselves to the teacher writing a list of these recommendations and trying out each of them.
Regardless of whether a list can be created, the third step of the lesson involves bringing groups together to complete a similar activity. In groups, students can work together and use peer instruction to help guide each other through the activity.
The last stage of the lesson involves teachers allowing students to complete a similar task on their own. At this stage, the teacher removes the scaffolding entirely and allows the students to work independently.
Building on the knowledge they’ve gained over the three previous stages, they can more effectively tackle a similar problem independently. Of course, even with a four-stage process, some students may not have fully grasped the lesson. This fourth stage is an important point in which teachers can assess student progress but also determine how effective their scaffolding process was.
It should be noted that while the four-stage process provides a framework for teachers to follow, they should only use it as a loose framework and not a rigid structure. For instance, the model provided by North Illinois University assumes that the teacher acts primarily as a lecturer during the first stage and doesn’t include some of the introductory activities we’ve previously discussed, like the creation of mind maps.
However, the first stage of a teacher’s instruction can be brief and be merged into the second stage, with students filling out activities as the teacher introduces the concepts and completes related tasks. Then the class can break out into groups and finish tasks before moving to independent work. The four-stage model provides an outline that teachers can learn from, but they should feel free to compress it when necessary or make some stages longer if the topic is particularly complex.
Scaffolding can be a little time intensive when first attempting to implement in the classroom and can be particularly difficult for new teachers to grasp. However, it’s a powerful means of helping students learn new concepts and helps them retain new information more easily.
By connection old ideas to new ones, teachers set a foundation for learning those new concepts. Then, by gradually working toward independent practice, teachers can progressively challenge students to successfully deal with these new concepts on their own.
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