Using the Scaffolding Technique in Your Teaching

When you think about scaffolds, you probably visualize the structures used during construction to support workers and materials. Scaffolded instruction is very similar, in that the teacher applies educational techniques to support the thought processes of the student. Teachers break lessons into smaller pieces and provide assistance to allow the student to master the material. Scaffolding offers an approach that is ideal for dissecting complicated material.

Understanding the Basics of Scaffolding

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Image via Flickr by ilmicrofono.oggiono

Scaffolding involves the following structure: the teacher does it, the class does it, the group does it, and then the student does it. By starting larger and working towards a more individual approach, students gets comfortable with the process for solving the problem at hand, until they can handle it on their own. The repetitive nature of scaffolding helps students develop stronger skills for handling new material. Ultimately, their success will translate into an inspiration to learn more.

The purpose of scaffolding is to provide support to your students and facilitate learning. Complex topics are first broken into smaller pieces to allow for graduated learning. You wouldn’t expect much enthusiasm from your students, for example, if you told them to provide a four-page written paper on a historical event of their choosing in two weeks. However, you could apply scaffolding to pique interest and support your students along the way.

To do this, you might start with an interactive lecture or presentation about the given historical event, with plenty of supporting materials. This would put the focus on you, your knowledge, and your leadership. Then you might give your students a discussion question and help guide the discussion while slowly pulling back from it as the students take the lead. From there, you could split the class into two groups and have them debate either side of one of the historical events most pressing issues, interfering only to referee. Finally, now that the concepts have been embedded deeply, you would remove the scaffolding entirely, sending students off to write that four-page written paper with a two-week due date. In this way, you’d have moved from teacher-dependent instruction to mild scaffolding to entirely independent work.

How to Implement Scaffolding as a Teaching Strategy

Following the steps below will help you implement and tailor this approach for your particular classroom and your students’ individual needs:

Step 1: Determine Timing and the Approach by Subject

Just as offering the right amount of help is critical, so is applying that help at the right time. Timing is crucial with scaffolding because, if students don’t feel supported and encouraged through complex topics, they’ll get frustrated and give up. You can assess your students’ level of frustration with constant feedback throughout the process.

Also, while there are certain topics that lend themselves more easily to scaffolding, you can apply scaffolding anywhere. Complex topics such as math are difficult to incorporate visuals, but demonstration works well in these scenarios. Models work well with the sciences, and flowcharts can help with understanding concepts such as philosophy.

Step 2: Find a Great Visual or Verbalization

Image via Flickr by Michael Bentley

Using a visual in scaffolding is a technique that allows you to model the nuances of complex topics. Once you break the topic into smaller pieces, use video clips or images to contrast lecture-based teaching. Visuals aren’t limited to pictures or video. Demonstrations are another great visual that allow students to interact with the material from a safe distance.

Similarly, walking the students through a problem-solving method acts as a visual to better explain the lesson. A flowchart can visually map out a thought process or idea that may not have a straightforward visual representation, such as certain math concepts.

If a visual isn’t accessible for a certain topic, verbalization of the thought process for solving the problem can help students understand the material. Even prompts for open discussion will be beneficial for students to learn new concepts.

Step 3: Use Verbalizations and Visuals as an Opportunity for Discussion

Once you have visuals for your topic, use these to create discussions among the students. Start by describing your process for working through the problem. Then encourage the class to ask questions or share their own ideas for working through the problem. Take discussions even further by breaking into small groups.

This more informal interaction gives shy students an opportunity to speak under less pressure. Students can share personal experiences to explain their reasoning behind how they approach the problem. Discussions provide a dynamic and interactive setting for sharing ideas and allowing the teacher to assess the student’s grasp on the material.

Step 4: Move to an Individualistic Approach

Image via Flickr by Tulane Public Relations

One of the trials of teaching is learning to read the student, determine her needs and tailor your teaching to accommodate her. Take the same approach with scaffolding. Each student’s needs vary, and students will have strengths and weaknesses that differ with certain subjects. Personal backgrounds can offer students a chance to share personal experiences and expand how other students relate to the material.

This makes the practice of scaffolding that much more challenging in the classroom. You want to offer just enough help so that the student doesn’t get frustrated, but not so much help that you are no longer challenging him.

Step 5: Emphasize that Errors are Okay

Encourage your students to see that errors are a way to learn, so that they’ll approach mistakes as an opportunity to better understand the material. Start by talking through a problem where you, as the teacher, have made a mistake.

This style of scaffolding allows your students to see an overview of the process and recognize common pitfalls. Try asking the question, “What could I have done differently?” to allow for an opportunity for creativity to seek out better solutions. Once students understand that it’s okay to make mistakes, they can take risks and open themselves to learning more.

The technique of scaffolding in your classroom is an excellent teaching method that can encourage many types of students. It comes with its own inherent set of challenges, yet the benefit of helping your students is a great reward. Start by understanding scaffolding and how it works, and apply the practice based on your curriculum and your classroom.