Julie McIsaac
August 6, 2019

What is ‘Scaffolding’ in Teaching?: A Simple Explanation

Learning is a process and a dance and research has shown us time and time again that it doesn’t happen unless we recognize and support one another; student, teacher and parent.

Think about a time when you were successful in learning a new skill.

Maybe it was in school, in sport, or at work. Can you remember what it felt like when you were introduced to the new skill? Do you remember how it was taught to you? Can you remember having an “ah ha” moment where something clicked? What did it feel like?

Now think of a time you were unsuccessful in learning a new skill. Maybe it took a lot longer for you than other people. Maybe you needed extra support or to be taught in a different format. Maybe you needed to try it yourself and make mistakes before you understood fully. What did that feel like?

‘Scaffolding’ in teaching is a term used in education to describe the way teachers can support a child’s learning in the classroom. Parents can do this at home as well. It is a way to think about how we introduce new concepts to our children or students to help them develop their thinking.

Just like the scaffolding on a building that is being constructed, the platforms provide a base for the builders to keep building up. If you want to build a 20-story building, you don’t start with the top floor. You start with the foundation and build from the base. This is the same with learning. Development is a trajectory, it does not always happen in a straight line, and it does not always happen the same for everyone, but with the right scaffolding in place, it continues to move upward.

Let’s use math as an example.

A lot of people don’t like math. Maybe we’ve learned from a young age that we are “just not good at math.” (That’s called a fixed mindset, by the way). Or maybe we didn’t learn math from the bottom up; a lot of us learned strategies to get us through, but without the fundamental understanding of number and mental math, these strategies become meaningless. In math, just like all cognitive abilities or academic subjects, there is a ladder. You cannot understand multiplication if you don’t understand addition. We call this a developmental ladder. Each step builds upon the previous step. If you jump ahead to a top step, your foundation is rocky. You might be able to do it, but it’s not as stable as it could be. We want our children’s foundation to be stable. We want to build their skills from the base. We do that by providing scaffolding along the way. Stronger foundations make things easier.

A little bit of (interesting!) education history

Vygotsky (in the 1920’s and 1930’s) developed the idea of the “zone of proximal development”. In simple terms, this is the sweet spot right in between ‘too easy’ and ‘too hard’.

You can also think of it as the place between ‘too boring’ and ‘too frustrating’.

What happens when we feel too bored or too frustrated? That depends on our coping strategies, but many of us lose focus, shift our attention, or if we’re talking about young kids, maybe you see it in their disruptive or isolating behavior.

Finding that sweet spot is key. This is the amazing work of educators and parents, to observe their children and students, to find their sweet spot and to scaffold around it as best they can. Jerome Bruner coined this process “scaffolding” in the 1970s as based on Vygotsky’s ideas.

Is it possible to always exist in the “sweet spot”? No! Definitely not. There is a lot of trial and error, and noticing and guessing. That’s part of the process and that’s ok. But the best thing we can do, as parents and as educators, is to see the ability in our children and to give them the opportunity to build on it; to have that ‘ah ha’ moment.

Ok, sounds great but what does this look like in the classroom?

First of all, a good teacher is thinking about scaffolding all of the time. But teachers need the support of parents because no one knows a child as well as their parents. We need to work together, and that means listening, sharing what we know and remembering our goal is the same: our student and child’s success in the classroom.

  1. Observe! Notice your child’s behavior patterns and think about what might be causing them. What are they drawn to and what do they pull away from?

  2. Break it down into small chunks. For example, if writing is hard, think about all of the skills that go into writing; there’s the act of holding the pencil properly and having fine motor control, understanding letter formation, holding ideas in your mind, or copying something from the board. This may involve story recall, the ability to reflect, or the ability to express what you’re thinking. When you break it down into very small parts, look for when your student engages with you, or shows interest. This is your clue. You’re getting closer to the sweet spot.

  3. Wait and wonder. Scaffolding in teaching implies that you, as the parent or teacher, are doing the work of building up the student, but your work is more important than that. You are giving them the opportunity to build themselves up You are wondering aloud with your student, you are asking the questions and creating the space for them to think it through. You are giving them time to figure it out and you know they can because they’ve got the foundation. You’re giving them just enough support to propel them forward. Ask open-ended questions, encourage curiosity, and get comfortable with silence.

Learning is a process and a dance and research has shown us time and time again that it doesn’t happen unless we recognize and support one another; student, teacher and parent.

Use your child’s IEP to think about their developmental level in each academic area. And remember this is a document that changes and grows with your child. Remember the math example? I believe with the right emotional support and scaffolding in teaching, it can get easier (and that’s called a growth mindset!).

  • Julie McIsaac, Ph.D.

    Child Development and Disability Advisor

    Julie specializes in working with children and families with diverse developmental profiles She uses reflective practice, emotion-coaching, play and a relationship-based framework to support skill building in the areas of emotional-regulation and problem-solving. Julie consults with families, schools and community organizations. As a parent, she understands the need to have a cohesive team supporting a child and family.

    Profile Photo of Julie McIsaac
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