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One Key to Unlocking Learning: Educational Scaffolds

The term scaffolding has been used in educational circles for decades, tracing back to 1976 when Wood, Bruner, and Ross suggested that this could be a tool that tutors could use to assist learning. Since then, there have been numerous studies and practical guides devoted to the practice of scaffolding learning experiences for students of all ages (e.g., Puntambekar, 2022).

However, the concept remains a bit elusive, and it is a bit unclear if and when teachers are scaffolding learning. In fact, scaffolding can potentially reduce student’s need to grapple with ideas and information to the point that the challenge of learning is reduced. In that case, scaffolding is likely to be of little benefit. Yet, there are times when scaffolds seem to unlock the learning for students, and they make gains in their understanding.  The overall effect size of scaffolding is .58, an above average influence on learning.  But we had to ask ourselves, why isn’t it higher? It seems that providing just-right supports should provide breakthrough learning experiences for students.

Thus, we set out to re-learn about scaffolding and identify moves that teachers can make to ensure that this practice has the intended impact. We soon realized that it was impossible to talk about scaffolding without talking about practice. Scaffolds are enacted when students are practicing and thus we had to dive deeply into the world of practice: spaced practice, purposeful, and deliberate practice. The result was a model of scaffolding (see figure below).

How Scaffolding Works, Corwin (2023)

Note that our model starts with a mental model. Students should engage in learning tasks when they have an idea—a mental model—what success looks like. When this is the case, we avoid naïve practice which results in very little learning. Naïve practice is just going through the motions of a task, perhaps repetitively, without focusing on them or learning from them. This is probably why we didn’t learn word meanings from writing them in the same sentence over and over. Instead, when students have a mental model of expertise, they know what the end looks like. Consider the novice piano player.

Without an understanding of what it looks like, feels like, and sounds like to play the piano, practice, scaffolds, and feedback are not likely to make much of a difference.

The mental model is the big picture that allows students to set goals and reach clarity about what it means to achieve that goal.  These goals are more proximal than the mental model, meaning that they are the next step in what may be a journey, such as learning to play the piano well.  In some cases, teachers use success criteria to ensure that students know what the goals are.  In other cases, teachers use rubrics or other tools for students to understand where they are going next in their learning journey.  Importantly, the goals have to align with the mental model.  If not, tasks are not very motivating and may be seen as compliance rather than focused on learning.

Now comes the interesting part, which is where and when to use the scaffolds. It turns out that we have options. We can use front-end scaffolds, distributed scaffolds, or back-end scaffolds. Of course, we can also use peer scaffolds—but more on that later. When you consider a learning task, two questions come to mind in terms of scaffolding:

  • What are the just-in-case scaffolds that I may need to use? Just-in-case scaffolds are provided to students before they attempt a challenging task.
  • What are the just-in-time scaffolds that I may need to use? Just-in-time scaffolds are provided when a student’s struggle becomes unproductive, or they otherwise demonstrate they need help because they are unable to move forward

To our thinking, educators over-rely on front-end scaffolds, such as frontloading information, reducing the difficulty of text selections, pre-teaching vocabulary, or reducing the struggle of tasks by providing too much information in advance. Of course, there are times that front-end scaffolds are necessary. There are also times when grappling with ideas and information is valuable. Universal design for learning is a common front-end scaffold that is likely useful for students whereas showing a video to all the students so that they don’t have to read a complex text is likely to harm learning.

As an alternative, teachers can use distributed scaffolds, or supports that are provided as needed during the learning tasks. For example, teachers can question, prompt, and cue students as they encounter challenges, which can get them un-stuck without removing the need to think through ideas and information. In addition, teachers can model their own thinking when students encounter a specific place in the task that stumps them. These are just-in-time scaffolds that are used when students are at risk of unproductive struggle.  When they are engaged in productive struggle, we refrain from scaffolding (Kapur, 2016).

Following learning tasks, teachers can use back-end scaffolds to ensure that learning occurs. For example, graphic organizers can be used as a back-end scaffold to help students organize information. Similarly, study skills can be used as a back-end scaffold. Essentially, back-end scaffolds are used to solidify skills and concepts and allow students to access that information in the future. Importantly, feedback can serve as a back-end scaffold when it is used to guide students in their next steps.

In addition, peers can be taught to provide scaffolds to others in the class. This can be especially powerful when it comes to emotional scaffolds and peer supports. There are a number of formats for peer supports, including class wide peer tutoring and peer-assisted learning strategies.

Regardless of the format, when peers are taught to scaffold for others, the number of opportunities for scaffolding increases dramatically and students spend more time learning.

The final phase in our model is fading scaffolds. It turns out that there is very little published research about how to fade scaffolds. And there is anecdotal evidence that many scaffolds are not faded and may be maintained longer than is necessary, which can prevent learning from occurring. There are two ways to think about fading scaffolds: least-to-most or most-to-least. The question is, based on what students are learning, should we start off with the least intensive scaffolds and add them as needed? Or should we begin with the most intensive and back off as students demonstrate success? The answer is that it depends on the skills to be learned and the context in which it is being learned.

Conclusion

Educators have learned a lot about scaffolding since the term was introduced in 1976. It should be more powerful in terms of impacting learning, but if scaffolds are used to remove opportunities to struggle or reduce the expectations for students, the impact is reduced.  In addition, we all need to learn more about how to fade and then remove the scaffolds that are in place such that the structures underneath are solid and stand alone. After all, that’s why the metaphor of a building scaffold was used. They are supposed to be temporary and taken away when the work has been completed.

References

Kapur, M. (2016). Examining productive failure, productive success, unproductive failure, and unproductive success in learning. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 289-299.

Puntambekar, S. (2022).  Distributed scaffolding: Scaffolding students in classroom environments. Educational Psychology Review, 34, 451–472.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89–100.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books. 

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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