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K–12 teaching and learning · from the UNC School of Education

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Scaffolding is an instructional technique, associated with the zone of proximal development, in which a teacher provides individualized support by incrementally improving a learner’s ability to build on prior knowledge. Scaffolding can be used in a variety of content areas and across age and grade levels.

Scaffolding in the classroom

When using scaffolding as an instructional technique, the teacher provides tasks that enable the learner to build on prior knowledge and internalize new concepts. According to Judy Olson and Jennifer Platt, the teacher must provide assisted activities that are just one level beyond that of what the learner can do in order to assist the learner through the zone of proximal development.1 Once learners demonstrate task mastery, the support is decreased and learners gain responsibility for their own growth.

In order to provide young learners with an understanding of how to link old information or familiar situations with new knowledge, the instructor must guide learners through verbal and nonverbal communication and model behaviors. Research on the practice of using scaffolding in early childhood development shows that parents and teachers can facilitate this advancement through the zone of proximal development by providing activities and tasks that:

  • Motivate or enlist the child’s interest related to the task.
  • Simplify the task to make it more manageable and achievable for a child.
  • Provide some direction in order to help the child focus on achieving the goal.
  • Clearly indicate differences between the child’s work and the standard or desired solution.
  • Reduce frustration and risk.
  • Model and clearly define the expectations of the activity to be performed.2

In the educational setting, scaffolds may include models, cues, prompts, hints, partial solutions, think-aloud modeling, and direct instruction.

Eight characteristics of scaffolding

Jamie McKenzie suggests that there are eight characteristics of scaffolding instruction. In order to engage in scaffolding effectively, teachers:

  • Provide clear direction and reduce students’ confusion. Prior to assigning instruction that involves scaffolding, a teacher must try to anticipate any problems that might arise and write step-by-step instructions for how learners must complete tasks.
  • Clarify purpose. Scaffolding does not leave the learner wondering why they are engaging in activities. The teacher explains the purpose of the lesson and why this is important. This type of guided instruction allows learners to understand how they are building on prior knowledge.
  • Keep students on task. Students are aware of the direction in which the lesson is heading, and they can make choices about how to proceed with the learning process.
  • Offer assessment to clarify expectations. Teachers who create scaffolded lessons set forth clear expectations from the beginning of the activity using exemplars, rubrics.
  • Point students to worthy sources. Teachers supply resources for research and learning to decrease confusion, frustration, and wasted time.
  • Reduce uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment. A well-prepared activity or lesson is tested or evaluated completely before implementation to reduce problems and maximize learning potential.
  • Deliver efficiency. Little time is wasted in the scaffolded lesson, and all learning goals are achieved efficiently.
  • Create momentum. The goal of scaffolding is to inspire learners to want to learn more and increase their knowledge and understanding.3

Martha Larkin suggests that there are eight guidelines that teachers most commonly follow when developing scaffolded lessons.4 According to research in the area of scaffolding, teachers often:

  • Focus on curriculum goals to develop appropriate tasks.
  • Define a shared goal for all students to achieve through engagement in specific tasks.
  • Identify individual student needs and monitor growth based on those abilities.
  • Provide instruction that is modified or adapted to each student’s ability.
  • Encourage students to remain focused throughout the tasks and activities.
  • Provide clear feedback in order for students to monitor their own progress.
  • Create an environment where students feel safe taking risks.
  • Promote responsibility for independent learning.

Advantages and disadvantages of scaffolding

This type of instruction has been praised for its ability to engage most learners because they are constantly building on prior knowledge and forming associations between new information and concepts. Additionally, scaffolding presents opportunities for students to be successful before moving into unfamiliar territory. This type of instruction minimizes failure, which decreases frustration, especially for students with special learning needs.5

Although scaffolding can be modified to meet the learning needs of all students, this is also disadvantageous because this technique, when used correctly, is incredibly time-consuming for teachers. Scaffolding also necessitates that the teacher give up some control in the classroom in order for learners to move at their own pace. Teachers who engage in scaffolding as a teaching strategy must be well-trained in order to create effective activities and tasks for all students.6