Instruction

9. Scaffolding

Video transcript

Presenter intro

Learning new or complex material can feel difficult and off-putting, but instead of simply making a task easier, we need to provide supports that will help pupils to access this challenging content. This is called scaffolding. Much like scaffolding on a building, it helps pupils to access parts of learning that they might struggle to get to on their own. It also needs to be removed once it has done its job. Scaffolding is a necessary but temporary support.

Presenter main

We define scaffolding as a temporary aid used to support pupils with their learning. Scaffolds, like those used on buildings, allow pupils to reach areas that they would struggle to get to without help. Once they’ve served their purpose, they’re removed. The aim of scaffolding is to gradually transfer responsibility of a task or learning from the teacher to the pupils.

When scaffolding is in place, teachers can establish high expectations and set challenging work knowing that the scaffold will make it more manageable. When content might be complex or abstract, scaffolds help pupils to experience success and allow them to access ambitious end goals. It is important that scaffolds support the right things and that they are gradually withdrawn.

A useful way of thinking about this is to compare how a balance bike for children works as compared to stabilizers. When children learn how to ride a bike, they need to learn how to balance on two wheels first. Stabilizers do the work of balancing, meaning that children focus first on learning how to pedal, but that isn’t what they need to master first. On the other hand, a balance bike simply removes the pedals. It allows children to practice balancing before working out how to pedal. In this case, the absence of pedals acts as a scaffold. Children can concentrate on what they need to learn, the balancing, without the added complexity of pedalling. A balance bike scaffolds the right thing. Teachers need to check what job their scaffold is doing.

When planning to introduce a scaffold, teachers can ask themselves a series of questions, such as the following: what do I want my pupils to think about? What will they be able to do on their own and what will they need help with? What might get in the way? Does the scaffold remove the obstacle, or does it replace the thinking?

Remember, scaffolds shouldn’t replace the thinking that you want pupils to do, and they need to be withdrawn gradually. Teachers can carry out scaffolds in a variety of ways.

Modelling is one form of scaffolding. Modelling helps to show pupils the most effective way to answer a problem or to carry out a task. Another scaffold that might be used are checklists. Checklists support pupils to attend to numerous aspects of their work. A teacher might also provide a list of key vocabulary on the boards. When a pupil gives an answer in their own non-specialist’s words, the teacher can ask them to rephrase their response using the disciplinary language on the boards. Here, pupils are doing the hard work of thinking about a response, and the list of words forms a scaffold that allows them to articulate their ideas more precisely. Worked examples are another scaffold that might be useful. Worked examples, where pupils go through a partially complete example with their teacher, help pupils to see the steps taken in solving a problem.

Regardless of the technique used as a scaffold, they should be temporary in nature. As pupils begin to achieve a high success rate, scaffolding should be removed. Otherwise, pupils might become reliant on the support and not be able to access the content independently. In some instances, scaffolds may actually inhibit learning. Where pupils have gained expertise, practice and independent activities without scaffolds might be more effective for pupil learning.

When we get scaffolds right and fade them out over time, our pupils feel supported, achieve success, and are set up to have a go on their own.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see an Ambition Institute coach model a specific scaffolding strategy. As you watch, look out for how they do the following:

  • Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work
  • Removes scaffolding only when pupils are achieving a high degree of success in applying previously taught material

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

For the purposes of this model, imagine I’m teaching a year nine Biology class about osmosis. I’ve taught the topic, and I want to give them another opportunity to practice what they’ve learned. From previous assessments, the group’s understanding of the science is good, but they are struggling to use the key scientific terminology. I’ve therefore provided a scaffold of key words on the board. Firstly, to help improve the accuracy of their verbal answers and then written answers in their workbook. After this lesson, having read their definitions, I’ll decide if I can remove the scaffold partially or completely depending on their use of this vocabulary in their written work. Pupils have completed a starter activity recapping what we learned last lesson, and I’m now asking them, using cold call, to describe what happens to a red blood cell that’s placed in pure water.

“So what happens to a red blood cell in pure water? In your answer, I’d like you to make use of the key scientific terminology on the board, and I’m now going to give you 30 seconds to think about your answer. Okay, Molly, could you share your answer with us please? What happens to a red blood cell in pure water?

[Molly answers: A red blood cell would get bigger in pure water because it is taking the water into it across it’s partially permeable membrane, because of osmosis happening]

Great, and what does the term osmosis mean?

[Molly answers: Osmosis is where water diffuses from an area of higher water concentration to an area of low concentration]

Thank you, Molly. So that’s an accurate definition, and you’ve made good use of the word bank here. Is there anything on here that you could use instead of the term get bigger? And try and put that into a full sentence for me.

[Molly answers: the red blood cell would ‘swell up’]

There are lots of great things about Molly’s answer. It’s scientifically correct, and she’s described the direction the water will travel in and the effect this will have on the cell. Also, she’s used the key scientific terminology here to describe what happens to the membrane. How could we further improve Molly’s answer? Use the words in the word bank, and take 30 seconds thinking time, off you go. So can we improve on Molly’s answer using the key terminology? Mitchell.

[Mitchell answers: During osmosis, water diffuses from an area of higher water concentration to an area of lower water concentration. A red blood cell in pure water would swell up and eventually burst, known as lysis. This is because the concentration of water is higher in the pure water when compared to the red blood cell, and so the water will move into the red blood cell, across its partially permeable membrane, until it cannot fit any more water and bursts]

That’s great, thank you, Mitchell. So you added the key words, such as water concentration, swell up, and lysis, and using these terms has really allowed you to explain what happens during osmosis more accurately. Let’s see if we can get more of this key terminology into our answer. Where could we add concentration gradient? I’ll give you 30 seconds thinking time. Okay, can we improve on Mitchell’s answer using the term concentration gradient? Hannah.

[Hannah’s answer: we can add it to the definition of osmosis, so, during osmosis, water diffuses from an area of higher water concentration to an area of lower water concentration, along its concentration gradient]

Perfect. So we’ve now demonstrated that we understand every aspect of osmosis, and we can describe as well as explain what’s happening. I’d now like you to answer a similar question in your workbooks, and the question and the word bank are in your books. Off you go.”

Let’s unpack this model. First, I helped pupils achieve a high success rate by ensuring that the task was manageable. Pupils had a good understanding of osmosis and were able to explain it in their own words. This activity took them a step further using academic vocabulary to refine their thinking.

Secondly, the scaffold I used supports pupils who need more structure early in their learning. As this is still new content, recalling what osmosis is and a wide range of scientific vocabulary, is a lot to hold onto at once. The word bank makes the task more accessible and enables them to come up with a more accurate definition. Importantly though, it doesn’t get in the way of the thinking that I need them to do, recalling the process of osmosis.

Finally, I thought about how to remove this scaffold. Once pupils are able to use this terminology fluently providing a word bank may hinder their thinking, and so it’s important I take it away as soon as possible. Scaffolds are a useful support, but they shouldn’t remain in place indefinitely.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have looked at how scaffolding can support pupil learning and provided some examples of scaffolding in practice. Before we finish, read over the key ideas that we have covered. Which of the following ideas do you think that the example illustrates the best?

  • Design practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work
  • Use modelling, explanations and scaffolds, acknowledging that novices need more structure early in a domain
  • Remove scaffolding only when pupils are achieving a high degree of success in applying previously taught material

Presenter summary

Effective scaffolding isn’t about doing the thinking for our pupils. Instead, it means providing them with the extra support that they need to achieve ambitious learning goals and removing it once they get there.

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Teaching challenge

Mr Jones is increasingly confident at using the I-We-You model to lead sequences of instruction. But he finds that some of his pupils become overwhelmed by new content and many pupils struggle when the ideas are abstract or complex. How can his instruction support pupils to be successful when tackling challenging material?

Key idea

Effective scaffolding gives pupils the knowledge and guidance to access challenging content but should be removed once pupils are experiencing high rates of success.

Evidence summary

Knowledge, new content and the role of scaffolding

Mr Jones now understands that to learn new content pupils need to be able to process it in their working memory, but that working memory capacity is limited and varies between pupils (Gathercole et al., 2006). Related knowledge helps pupils make sense of new content (Willingham, 2009). For example, pupil vocabulary knowledge allows them to process strings of letters as sentences when reading and knowledge of phonics helps them when they encounter an unfamiliar word, reducing the demands on working memory. Prior knowledge reduces the burden on working memory and frees it up to think about more challenging concepts. Where prior knowledge is lacking, further support through scaffolding can help, for example by providing a definition and pronunciation of an unfamiliar key word. But where pupils already have this knowledge, scaffolding can get in the way of pupils using their prior knowledge (Pashler et al., 2007).

Prior knowledge helps us to grasp related new ideas more easily, particularly if the new ideas are concrete, as most of the things we know are concrete. However, many of the ideas encountered at school are abstract, and distant from pupils’ everyday experiences (Willingham, 2009). When introducing abstract ideas, teachers can provide related scaffolds that make the ideas more concrete. This reduces the chances of working memory becoming overloaded, increasing the chances of pupil success. For example, the idea of adding fractions can be abstract, but we can make it more concrete by using objects or diagrams (Pashler et al., 2007).

Introducing scaffolding

Scaffolding can be introduced to support pupils to succeed with difficult tasks where they lack sufficient prior knowledge. Scaffolding involves breaking down tasks into manageable steps and providing temporary supports. This enables pupils to focus on and think about only certain aspects of the task at any one time, reducing the chances of working memory being overloaded.

Mr Jones should try to anticipate what his pupils with struggle with most, break down the task into manageable steps, and then decide what kinds of scaffolding he might put in place.

He can draw on a few different types of scaffold to support pupil thinking and make his ‘expert thinking’ explicit:

  • Modelling: For example, sharing an excellent piece of work or ‘thinking aloud’ through a problem (Rosenshine, 2012). Mr Jones can reduce the cognitive burden his pupils feel by directing pupil attention towards the key features of a problem or example. This can help them to break down a complex task into more manageable parts.
  • Worked examples: When introducing a new type of problem in maths, Mr Jones could break the problem down into steps instead of getting his pupils to attempt it in one go. He could then guide them through each step by providing prompts or explanations which would help the pupils succeed at each step. Worked examples reduce the number of options pupils need to think about by pointing them directly to successful approaches (Sweller, 2016).
  • Guides: Teachers can also anticipate common pupil mistakes and misconceptions and provide guides such as checklists as support to overcome these (Rosenshine, 2012). For example, when teaching his pupils creative writing, Mr Jones could give his pupils a checklist of things they should include. This means that pupils do not have to simultaneously think about both what they want to write and the complex devices they need to use. Checklists also support them to review their work to avoid common errors like leaving out full stops and misconceptions like every ‘s’ should have an apostrophe.

Removing scaffolding

Scaffolds need to be temporary to successfully support learning. As pupil knowledge develops, using fewer examples and more problem solving appears to improve learning, rather than continuing to provide high levels of guidance (Pashler et al., 2007). As pupils develop more knowledge, trying to process the scaffolding at the same time as drawing on their existing knowledge can overload working memory. As a result, scaffolding is best removed as pupils’ knowledge grows. Rather than removing all the scaffolds at once, however, Mr Jones can gradually ‘fade’ them out by removing support gradually, as pupils begin to experience higher success rates (Rosenshine, 2012).

Effective scaffolding increases the chances of pupils experiencing success and improves pupil motivation (Coe et al., 2014). Success should be a central guiding principle when deciding whether and when to remove scaffolding as pupil expertise increases.

Nuances and caveats

Scaffolding alone cannot overcome limitations in pupil prior knowledge. Strategies like explicitly teaching content and allowing pupils to rehearse this new knowledge are necessary to ensure pupils have adequate knowledge (Rosenshine, 2012).

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can successfully scaffold his instruction if he understands that:

  • Pupils will struggle and working memory will become overloaded if they do not have relevant knowledge of new content – particularly if it is complex or abstract.
  • Scaffolding can provide knowledge to support pupils to access new content through modelling, worked examples and guides.
  • Scaffolding needs to be removed over time as it can become a barrier once pupil knowledge is developed. However, a high success rate should be maintained.

Further reading

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. bit.ly/ecf-ros

References

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK. bit.ly/ecf-coe

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education. bit.ly/ecf-pas

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. bit.ly/ecf-ros

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360-367.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey – Bass.

Check

Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reflect

Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Jones can successfully scaffold his instruction if he understands that:

  • Pupils will struggle and working memory will become overloaded if they do not have relevant knowledge of new content – particularly if it is complex or abstract.
  • Scaffolding can provide knowledge to support pupils to access new content through modelling, worked examples and guides.
  • Scaffolding needs to be removed over time as it can become a barrier once pupil knowledge is developed. However, a high success rate should be maintained.

 

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?