How Scaffolding Could Change the Way Your Child Learns

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How Scaffolding Could Change the Way Your Child Learns
Every child learns differently and it’s a teacher’s job to meet students where they are and guide them through the learning process. Scaffolding is a teaching tool that helps students develop critical thinking skills and the ability to learn independently.

It is a teacher’s job to shape the minds of the nation’s youth, teaching them the concepts and skills they’ll need to become functional adults. Early childhood education is critical, and it can affect everything from a student’s future academic success to his mental and emotional health.

Every child learns differently and his educational success depends, in large part, on his teachers and their method of instruction. Children learn by listening, observing, exploring, and asking questions. The more a child understands the “what” and “why” of the lesson, the more motivated and engaged they’re going to be. Scaffolding is an instructional tool teachers use to develop critical thinking skills and other skills they need to work more independently.

Read on to learn more about what scaffolding is, how it differs from other teaching methods, and what benefits it has for student success.

What is Instructional Scaffolding?

In higher education, students are often left to their own devices to take a project from the assignment phase to completion. A college professor might give a classroom full of students a research article and ask them to write a detailed essay about the key topic. As the professor in this example, you might expect to receive mixed results. Some students are more than capable of completing a project with minimal instruction while others might struggle. In many ways, it comes down to the way the student was taught in the early years of his education.

Instructional scaffolding is a teaching method that breaks up a lesson or project into smaller pieces, using some kind of underlying structure or a specific tool to guide the student along the way. The example used above is the opposite of a scaffolding lesson. So, what does scaffolding look like?

According to the Iris Center, instructional scaffolding is a process through which teachers add support for students to enhance their learning and aid them in the mastery of tasks. It involves systematically building on student experience and existing knowledge while learning new skills. One method is for the teacher to model or demonstrate how to complete the task before stepping back, offering student support as needed. As the student masters the tasks, the support is removed.

The term “scaffolding” was first used by psychologist and instructional designer Jerome Bruner during the 1960s. The idea is that when students are given proper support when learning something new, they stand a better chance of later using that knowledge independently.

In the medical field, it’s exemplified with the phrase, “see one, do one, teach one.” Observing a procedure prepares the student to perform it on their own which broadens their understanding and builds experience they can use to pass that knowledge along or use it again later themselves.

What Does Scaffolding Look Like in Education?

In a scaffolded lesson, the teacher begins teaching at a level the student is able to understand then builds on that existing understanding. Next, she presents the problem and talks the student through the process of solving it. By combining actions, images, and language, the teacher shows the student how to solve the problem then guides the student to do it himself.

Here is a step-by-step example of scaffolding in action:

  1. The teacher presents a problem or task then completes it, thinking aloud and talking students through the process to complete it.
  2. She repeats the process a few more times, asking questions of her students all the while.
  3. Each time a student answers a question, right or wrong, he receives a positive response to encourage continued participation.
  4. The task is repeated as more students are asked to respond to the questions.
  5. When the students appear to have gained understanding, they are asked to complete a new task or problem.
  6. As the students continue to solve problems, the teacher checks their understanding and provides more support if needed.
  7. Once the student demonstrates knowledge, the teacher steps back and lets the students work independently, providing support as needed.

The practice of scaffolding can be used at all levels of education, starting as early as preschool. In early childhood education, scaffolding helps children master basic concepts they’ll build on as their education continues. At the college level, scaffolding can help students strengthen the skills they’ll need after they graduate and enter the workplace on their own.

Scaffolding vs. Differentiation

Before we move on to the benefits of scaffolding for student success, it is important to note the difference between scaffolding and differentiation. Both methods involve identifying the student’s current level of mastery or understanding and making adjustments to further his education. Both methods can be used in diverse groups of students and both are designed to help move student learning from where it is to where it needs to be.

Differentiation refers to teaching techniques and lesson adaptations to accommodate a group with diverse learning needs. When using a method of differentiated instruction, teachers might give an entirely different task to certain students to better match their current understanding and ability. The teacher might also give the students the option to choose from several tasks, allowing them to choose the one that best suits their knowledge or that interests them more than the others.

Scaffolding, on the other hand, involves breaking the project up into discrete parts, providing the assistance needed to learn each part. Using the example of a reading assignment, differentiation might involve giving some students entirely different texts. Scaffolding might involve giving students an excerpt of the larger text and engaging them in discussion to improve their understanding of concepts and vocabulary before assigning the full text.

In some classrooms, teachers can blend scaffolding and differentiation together seamlessly. Both methods are useful in public school settings where any given class might contain a diverse array of learning styles and different levels of mastery.

The Benefits of Scaffolding for Student Success

When it comes to childhood education, it is a teacher’s job to teach core concepts and important skills. More importantly, however, teachers help children learn how to learn. Scaffolding is a very effective way to guide students in learning new concepts without simply presenting them for memorization. It encourages the development of critical thinking and other skills children will need throughout their lives, not just in furthering their education.

Here are some of the key benefits of instructional scaffolding:

  • It improves engagement and motivation. Scaffolding directly involves students in the learning process and can be adjusted to each child’s needs. It keeps the children more focused and engaged during the lesson, enhancing their understanding of the concept as a whole on top of the specific problem.
  • It helps educators identify zones of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is the range of knowledge or abilities a student can do with assistance but can’t yet do independently. By actively engaging with students, teachers can more easily identify the students’ zone of proximal development and use it to inform their teaching.
  • It reduces anxiety and uncertainty during learning. Asking a student to complete a too-difficult task induces anxiety that can hinder the learning process. Scaffolding allows the teacher to adjust the lesson in response to student feedback, resolving uncertainties and eliminating potential anxiety.
  • It builds momentum within the lesson. In order to be effective, scaffolding involves the asking questions to gauge the student’s understanding. Wrong answers can be met with immediate assistance when it is needed most, building momentum and guiding the learning experience.

The concept of scaffolding can be applied to a wide range of concepts and tasks. It is also customizable for different levels of education and different learning styles. Read on to learn some specific ways in which scaffolding can be implemented in education.

7 Ways to Implement Scaffolding in Education

There is no specific roadmap for how to implement scaffolding because it varies from one lesson to another and among different groups of students. Scaffolding is more of a concept teachers use to guide their students’ understanding and to help them built their own critical thinking skills. There are, however, certain things you can try to implement scaffolding into an assignment or lesson.

Here are some ways to implement scaffolding into childhood education:

  1. Model or demonstrate. Show your students an example of what they’ll be learning or doing. Start by showing them an example of the finished product then walk them through the steps, verbalizing your thought process as you demonstrate.
    • Example: Have your students gather in a small group surrounded by a larger group in two circles. Have the smaller group in the center engage in an activity, showing the larger group how it’s done.
  2. Break it into bite-sized pieces. Take larger concepts and break them down into more manageable pieces, teaching mini lessons to progressively move students toward a deeper understanding.
    • Example: Have students read an excerpt from a larger text and discuss vocabular and core concepts before reading the larger text, using the understanding they’ve already developed.
  3. Teach things in multiple ways. Every student learns differently, so support different learning styles by approaching new concepts from multiple angles. Show and tell your students different ways to complete a task and let them try it for themselves using the method of their choice.
    • Example: Teach students to tie their shoes by first showing them a completed bow then show them multiple ways to tie one. Let the students practice on their own, guiding them as needed.
  4. Make time for verbal processing. No matter their learning style, all students need time to process new information. Verbally communicating the idea and articulating their understanding can help the learning process.
    • Example: Introduce a new task or concept and ask students to complete it in pairs or small groups, talking as they work through it.
  5. Pre-teach key concepts and vocabulary. Give students the tools they need to learn by pre-teaching things they’ll need to understand the bigger picture. Once the students understand the smaller pieces of the puzzle, they’ll be better able to see the larger picture.
    • Example: Introduce key vocabulary words from the text and present them in pictures or explain them in context. Give students time to discuss in small groups before tackling the whole text.
  6. Use visual aids. Visual aids like pictures and charts can help students visually represent their ideas to organize their understanding and grasp tricky concepts like sequencing or cause and effect. It is a tool to shape and guide student thinking.
    • Example: To help students understand the difference between to things, help them draw out a Venn diagram to highlight the individual concepts and how they are similar and different.
  7. Check for understanding. While students are working through a difficult text or a new concept, pause throughout to check their understanding and redirect focus, if needed. Ask questions that are open-ended, guiding students to explore their own understanding.
    • Example: Pause after reading a section of the text to give students time to process then ask a guiding question, pausing again for thought before taking answers.

The key to scaffolding is to set your students up for success. The end goal is for the student to learn or understand the lesson – how they get to that point may not be a straight line. It’s the teacher’s job to provide checkpoints and guidance along the way to understanding.

Tips to Make Scaffolding Successful

Understanding the concept of scaffolding in education is one thing, but implementing it is another. Putting scaffolding to work in a classroom setting will look completely different from one class to another depending on the students in the class. Here are some general tips for using scaffolding in a creative and efficient way in the classroom:

  • Model the process of error detection and correction. Making mistakes is part of the learning process but it is important for students to learn how to identify and correct mistakes. As a teacher, you might simulate getting stuck with the problem then show your students how you might talk through the problem to find the solution instead of giving up.
  • Encourage students to become teachers. There are many things that can best be learned by doing. Once you’ve modeled the task for your students and have helped them complete the tasks themselves, encourage students who have completed the ask to help others who are still struggling. It will further their understanding of the concept and may help the struggling student see the problem in a new way.
  • Help students organize their thoughts. Giving students time to think is an important step in the learning process. After you describe and model a concept, give students an opportunity to organize their thoughts. You might ask them to create a word web or write an outline to help them focus in on the task at hand and identify areas where they still need guidance.
  • Try the task scaffolding method. For more complex concepts and tasks, it may help to start with a list of steps – this is another method of breaking the lesson down into smaller parts. Separate out each step, verbalizing your process as you complete the task and showing how one step leads into or builds on the other.
  • Make the lesson relevant and interesting. When teaching new concepts to students, it helps to start with something familiar or of interest to the student. If you can incorporate real-world examples, you can fast-track your students’ understanding. For example, a student who loves birds is more likely to focus on a text about parrots than one about an abstract concept.
  • Don’t put a time limit on the lesson. Everyone learns in their own time and putting a strict time limit on difficult lessons can hinder the learning process. You need to give your students time to think and work through the process themselves, even after you’ve modeled it. As you’re guiding your students to complete the task themselves, pause as often as necessary to provide additional instruction or to ask a guiding question.

Scaffolding is a powerful teaching tool that can be used in combination with other instructional techniques. In some cases, students may learn quickly and require little individual guidance while other students may need more help. You might implement other teaching tools like differentiation or break the class into smaller groups based on their level of understanding.


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