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Supporting Learning: Using Scaffolding in Education

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Written by
Voyager Sopris Learning
Updated on March 29, 2024
Quick Takeaway

Instructional scaffolding is a systematic approach providing a framework for educators to support students in building and strengthening their understanding of any given subject. Rooted in the “Zone of Proximal Development,” it aids in bridging the gap between current knowledge and learning goals. Effective teaching strategies, such as 'I Do, We Do, You Do,' graphic organizers, and think-alouds, align with the gradual release of support that is a pillar within scaffolding. The flexibility of scaffolding benefits students across diverse scenarios, promoting mastery of challenging content, enhanced understanding, and preparation for lifelong learning. For more insight and tools to implement scaffolding effectively, check out Voyager Sopris Learning®

Scaffolding is a systematic instructional approach that serves as a schoolwide objective, providing educators with a framework to support students in building and strengthening their understanding of any given subject. This method enables teachers to skillfully demonstrate problem-solving strategies, offer assistance as needed, and gradually withdraw guidance as students gain confidence in their independent learning. 

The goal of instructional scaffolding is to help students bridge the gap between their current knowledge and targeted learning objectives. This process involves employing various teaching strategies and regular formative assessments, such as quizzes, exit tickets, or homework, to tailor instruction and ensure effective progression through the learning process.

Scaffolding is directly related to the “Zone of Proximal Development,” a concept coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky explained this is "the difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can achieve with guidance from a teacher." According to Vygotsky, children learn best when they interact with those who provide guidance and encouragement to master new skills.

Understanding the Learning Environment

Inclusive learning environments empower children—no matter the technique that’s being used. While creating an inclusive learning environment using the scaffolding approach, teachers should provide materials and activities that incorporate a variety of cultural backgrounds and perspectives. They should also accommodate both whole and small groups, as well as all learning styles, including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual learners benefit from graphic organizers and anchor charts, while auditory learners thrive in discussions. On the other hand, kinesthetic learners work best with hands-on activities and interactive learning opportunities. 

  • Tailoring Scaffolding to High School Students: High school students require scaffolding strategies that align with their increased cognitive abilities and academic demands. An example of this is incorporating project-based learning opportunities where students can delve into complex topics that foster critical thinking and self-directed exploration.

  • Whole-Class Integration: Strategies for successful whole-class integration involve clear communication of learning objectives, utilizing visual aids for conceptual understanding, and fostering a collaborative learning environment. Additionally, incorporating differentiated tasks and periodically checking in with individual students ensures the scaffolding support is effectively reaching every learner in the class. This balanced approach enables educators to maintain a supportive atmosphere for the entire class while addressing the unique challenges each student may encounter.

Exploring Teaching Strategies

To scaffold effectively, a teacher must establish their students’ needs, and then implement various instructional strategies to guide them toward taking more responsibility for their learning. A teaching model that aligns with this scaffolding principle is Jerome Bruner’s “I Do, We Do, You Do.” In this model, the teacher explicitly demonstrates, the class participates together, and then students apply their knowledge independently. 

Graphic organizers and visual aids are another important tool in scaffolding. These resources simplify complex concepts and offer a visual structure, enhancing comprehension. Similarly, think-alouds and mind maps encourage the cognitive processes of students by promoting critical thinking. 

Scaffolding Techniques

Teachers often scaffold naturally without even realizing it, regardless of their teaching style. This includes assessing students, setting goals, planning support, and implementing guided lessons. Some additional and common techniques include pre-teaching vocabulary, utilizing templates, and using rubrics for guided assessments.

  • Pre-Teaching Vocabulary: Before reading or beginning a lesson, teachers can introduce new terms to students. Exposure to certain words beforehand can help students identify and comprehend them while reading the text. Vocabulary words can be further explored through activities like word maps, discussions, or graphics.

  • Utilizing Templates: Templates serve as powerful scaffolding tools, providing a structured framework for students to organize their thoughts and work. They can take the form of robust essay outlines or thorough project guides.

  • Rubrics for Guided Assessment: Rubrics with clear expectations help students know how they should demonstrate their knowledge for an assignment. They also provide an opportunity for students to become more aware of the learning process and allow for focused and constructive feedback. 

Applying Scaffolding in Practice

In practice, educators should engage students in problem-solving activities, discussions, and case studies with gradually decreasing support to enhance their ability to think critically. This improves students’ critical thinking abilities by guiding them through challenging tasks, encouraging inquiry, and providing structured support. 

The needs of students are consistently evolving, meaning scaffolding interventions may need to be regularly evaluated. Formative assessments, such as quizzes, homework, discussions, or peer reviews can provide feedback for educators to adjust scaffolding strategies. Conducting diagnostic assessments to gauge each student’s prior knowledge and current level will also allow educators to personalize support and then employ effective scaffolding strategies.

How Scaffolding Works

Scaffolding has two key concepts: explicit guidance and fading support. It can be used to teach all subjects and is easily adapted to support students in all grade levels. 

  • Explicit Guidance: Explicit guidance is a foundational element of scaffolding where educators provide clear and direct instruction to support students in mastering new concepts. This method involves articulating the steps, thought processes, or skills required to achieve a particular learning goal. Educators explicitly model or share information, offering step-by-step instructions to ensure student understanding. This approach is particularly beneficial when introducing complex tasks or unfamiliar topics. For example, in a math class, explicit guidance may involve a teacher clearly explaining the steps of solving an algebraic equation, breaking down each component for students to grasp. In language arts, the learning experience could be a detailed explanation of the structure and elements of a persuasive essay.

  • Fading Support: Fading support is a progressive step in scaffolding that involves gradually reducing assistance to promote independence while ensuring continued guidance. As students gain competence, the educator lessens the level of support provided, allowing students to take on more responsibility for their learning. This step is crucial for reinforcing understanding and building confidence. For instance, in a science experiment, a teacher might initially guide students through each phase, then gradually shift toward allowing them to conduct certain steps independently. In reading comprehension, fading support could begin with structured prompts and evolve into students analyzing texts on their own.

Adapting explicit guidance and fading support strategies to different grade levels requires consideration of cognitive development stages. In preschool, explicit guidance might involve hands-on activities with simple, clear instructions, while fading support could mean gradually encouraging independent exploration. In high school, explicit guidance may entail detailed explanations of complex scientific theories, and fading support may involve encouraging self-directed research and critical thinking.

Benefits of Scaffolding

Scaffolding is a proven and extremely effective instructional approach. Here are some ways scaffolding contributes to student success: 

  • Mastery of Challenging Content: Scaffolding guides students through challenging content. This increases their likelihood of retention and builds their overall confidence in the classroom. 

  • Enhanced Understanding: Scaffolding offers targeted support, such as explicit guidance and visual aids. This contributes to deeper comprehension by bridging the learning gaps in traditionally complex concepts. 

  • Gradual Release of Responsibility: From guided learning to independent mastery, scaffolding empowers students to take control of their own learning, promoting a sense of ownership and independence. 

  • Preparation for Lifelong Learning: Scaffolding contributes to a broader foundation for future educational pursuits. This includes motivating students to learn more on their own and taking responsibility for their learning. 

  • Active Participation: Scaffolding encourages active participation through the use of interactive methods such as think-alouds and problem-solving activities. These methods improve communication between teachers and students, encouraging students to ask for help and seek clarification. 

  • Fostering a Positive Learning Environment: A scaffolding-rich environment contributes significantly to a positive and supportive learning atmosphere. In this environment, students feel supported, encourage their peers, and express their opinions freely. 

Conclusion

At the beginning of the scaffolding process, the teacher provides a lot of support, which is then removed gradually to instill confidence and comprehension of a new skill or concept. When scaffolding is adjusted to support all learning styles, the classroom becomes an environment where all students can thrive and learn effectively. 

Voyager Sopris Learning’s mission aligns with these scaffolding strategies and their adaptability for diverse teaching environments. For more insight and tools to implement scaffolding strategies effectively, check out solutions from Voyager Sopris Learning®.