Mrs. Johnson, a middle school teacher, has assigned a nonfiction article to her students. She then observes many students struggling to understand the first reading because her question-and-answer following did not develop as she had hoped. This is just one example of a common mistake teachers can make when practicing scaffolding techniques.
Learning from this mistake, the next time Mrs. Johnson uses scaffolding when teaching, she makes sure to employ tools such as activating background knowledge, partially filled-out graphic organizers, and small groups. By integrating these methods into her planning, she hopes to improve her students’ comprehension of assigned articles.
In the latter example, Mrs. Johnson is providing scaffolding for her students. This means that she breaks up complex learning by using targeted supports based on the various needs of her students. Another way to look at this is through the “I Do – We Do – You Do” teaching model. As you've traveled around town, you may have noticed structures or scaffolds that are designed to support a building and the construction workers. What does this analogy tell us about scaffolds?
- They elevate and support.
- They can repair a problem.
- They are designed to be removed — and, thus, they are temporary.
These same principles hold true for educational scaffolds. If the scaffold or support beam is removed before a problem has been repaired, mistakes are bound to happen on the construction site or in the classroom. We must keep this in mind when providing scaffolding techniques to our students; moreover, we must be as purposeful in taking them down (or removing assistance) as we are putting them up (or offering assistance).
In This Article:
- What Is Our Ultimate Goal?
- A Brief History of Scaffolding When Teaching
- Common Mistakes When Teaching and Learning Scaffolding
- Learning Scaffolding Is an Art, Not a Science
What Is Our Ultimate Goal?
As educators, our ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between what students can and cannot do by empowering them to be independent learners and critical problem solvers.
The key is how to get there and how to then slowly pull away the support to allow the learner to be successful on their own. However, if we pull away scaffolds too quickly, the support structure (of learning and leading to independence) fails. The other challenge with scaffolding is that students may become dependent on such support. According to Fisher and Fry, scaffolding can become disproportionate to a student’s own initiative where the challenge has been removed from learning.1 Even though students may be able to pass a test, they may lack the ability to learn new information with proper problem solving and critical thinking skills.
A Brief History of Scaffolding When Teaching
The classroom should be an environment where students have the freedom to make mistakes without fear of punishment. In the 1970s, Jerome Bruner introduced this concept where students would have such support (through an environment of supportive tools) before being dismissed to work on their own.2 This approach was corroborated by Lew Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory, which posited that learning takes place socially as interaction occurs.2
The goal of “gradual release,” where instruction transfers slowly from teacher modeling to student, and from teacher or group to practice, is independent application by the student.2 This is where the challenge may occur. Teachers should constantly be asking themselves, Have I gone too far? As with many things in education, the pendulum can swing too far to one side, leading to over-scaffolding.
Common Mistakes When Teaching and Learning Scaffolding
Imagine a child learning to ride a bike. At first, with training wheels, they can ride knowing that they will be protected if the bike wobbles a bit. In time, the training wheels are removed and the rider pedals forward on their own, slowly gaining control (although maybe with a little wobbling). This is an apt metaphor for scaffolding, which offers many potential benefits because it supports students with “training wheels” as they take on new learning by asking questions, making mistakes and slowly gaining confidence in their own abilities.
Like training wheels, scaffolding can make or break a struggling student’s success. However, the scaffolding (or training wheels) must eventually be removed if the goal is to create independent learners and critical problem solvers. If we remove the training wheels from a child’s bike too soon, they may fall flat and skin their knee. However, the skinned knee (or the experience of making a mistake in the classroom) may be beneficial to the learning while also instilling grit in a student. There is a fine line of knowing what student will thrive in the struggle and what student will need more assistance.
Another challenge of scaffolding is that it is time-consuming on the part of the educator. In an ideal world, teachers would have enough time to understand the learning styles and needs of each student; however, this may not always be possible. We must also remember that scaffolding is distinct from differentiated teaching in that scaffolding may mean introducing vocabulary or previewing a text for the whole class, whereas differentiated instruction involves differentiating the same lesson to various levels of students in their understanding. Scaffolding activities must be able to meet the strengths of students with very different learning styles — which, again, can eat up much of the teacher’s planning process.3
Let’s take a deeper look at some of the most common mistakes educators make when applying scaffolding techniques:
1. Too Much Front-loading (Overloading Students With Too Much Initial Information)
Fisher and Fry note that students deserve an opportunity to wrestle with ideas and information, which may mean staying in the struggle for a bit.1 Without embracing the struggle, they believe that with excessive front-loading (a type of scaffolding) students have a hard time finding their own momentum and balance as learners. This means that if we do provide any scaffolds, as teachers, we must also fade as we determine students’ readiness to take on the independent practice (or the “You Do” piece). We want to set our students up for success, and if we spend too much time on the before, we may instill student dependency on the tools and supports, which impedes their achievement of independence.
2. Failing To Strike the Balance Between Scaffolding and Independence
An interesting study by Volman investigated whether scaffolding affects students’ achievement, task effort and appreciation of teacher support, when students work in small groups. They studied the effects of support quality and duration of independence. Compared to the high-quality support group, where independent work time was short and help occurred often, the group that received less support was more successful in stimulating students’ achievement and efforts.4
On the flip-side, where there was a longer independent work time (and help occurred less often), high-quality support was more effective in promoting students’ achievement. In addition, higher levels of support quality resulted in a greater appreciation for that support. These findings indicate that the place of scaffolding depends on the allowance of time and support in the independent time allotment efforts. Success still depends on the independent working time of the groups and students’ efforts. We must continue to model and encourage no matter what because support appears to be appreciated. In the “I Do” method, we model and continually recognize success as we slowly release students to independence.
Also, in the “I Do” model, we recognize where supports are needed for various levels of learners (as we observe and formatively assess), which enables educators to:
- Identify where students are in the learning process1
- Ask how far they are from independence
- Get the student involved in their own learning
We must remind ourselves that much of our role can be that of an encourager; students who feel supported (especially with scaffolds) appear to do better in independent working time. However, before achieving independence in the “We Do,” scaffolds are provided using tools such as small groups and sentence starters, while teachers check for understanding and provide guidance. Although some students will be ready to move to independence faster, the key is to keep them engaged in the learning process.
3. Neglecting To Understand Scaffold Types and When To Deploy Them
Fisher and Fry discuss guiding students to the goal of independence utilizing various types of scaffolds.1
- Front-end scaffolds are used as the lesson begins as an anticipatory set. Examples include reviewing vocabulary, showing a visual, or even reading something aloud and engaging in a discussion.
- Distributed scaffolds occur during the “We Do” stage and are monitored and changed as the students catch on. This can be part of peer scaffolding, where the learners are already in pairs or groups, supporting one another. A “pause, question, review” approach can prompt student thinking without giving them any answers; it merely prompts the thinking and, when used with a partner, can invoke a new idea.
- Back-end scaffolds can be a part of the reflection process at the end of learning.
Using scaffolding in these ways can encourage learning without engendering dependence among the learners. However, we must know when to fade (as well as when to break up the groups) so as to nudge students toward independence.
4. Failing To Encourage Students While Allowing Them To Tackle Challenges Independently
In her book Limited Mind, Jo Boaler discusses the vitality of the struggle and the allowance for mistakes in the learning process.5 She invokes the example of a skating coach who used to tell his protege, “if you are not falling, you are not learning”; likewise, in the classroom, if you are not struggling, you are not really learning.5 Also in this vein, scientists at UCLA have written about “desirable difficulties,” intimating that our brains crave to be pushed and challenged.6 Therefore, if and when a student struggles and complains about something being difficult, we can instead praise them and say, “That is awesome! You can do this! Keep going!” A logical next step would then be to ask them a prompting question.
5. Misjudging the Timing for Gradual Fading of Support
Our goal is the “You Do” portion of the method, when 90% of the responsibility is placed on the students for their own learning and mastery.1 Again, we continue to encourage and support them in this stage (as the study showed, students who feel supported appear to be more successful because they appreciate the support).
We may see struggle, but productive struggle can be an opportunity for learners to engage in critical thinking and muddle through complex topics. If students know that there are “training wheels” nearby, they may be able to stay in the fight for independence a bit longer.
Learning Scaffolding Is an Art, Not a Science
Scaffolding is designed to elevate, support, repair and then be removed. The cycle of scaffolding is not a “one and done”; it is ongoing and fluid, but it must be powered by encouragement. If the student knows that those training wheels are in the classroom ready to use, and they know they have encouragement from us educators, they may feel more confident in their independence. This way they know they can fall, and if they get up and do it again, they can always have those supports in the future.
Discover the art of effective scaffolding in teaching while steering clear of common mistakes made when learning scaffolding. Explore how teaching degree programs at Grand Canyon University can equip you with the knowledge and skills for you to scaffold in education. Begin your journey toward teaching excellence by pursuing an education degree such as our Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Education.
1 Fisher, D. and Fry, N. (2023). Are we scaffolding too much? Learning Without Tears. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2023.
2 Bauld, A. (n.d.). What is Scaffolding in Education? XQ Institute. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2023.
3 Loveless, B. (n.d.). Scaffolding in Education. Education Corner. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2023.
4 Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., Oort, F., and Beishuizen, J. (2015, June 5). The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support. Springer Link. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2023.
5 Spector, C. (2019, Sept. 30). Embrace the struggle: Stanford education professor challenges common beliefs about teaching and learning. Stanford News. Retrieved on Oct. 3, 2023.
6 Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56–64). Worth Publishers.
Approved by faculty for the College of Education on Nov. 10, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.