Scaffolding for Students

The idea of “scaffolding” – providing some kind of tangible support for students when they are asked to learn something new, as opposed to simply “throwing stuff out there” and trusting that they get it – is normally traced to the work of psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid-1970s and his social interactionist argument, familiar to all sociologists, that we learn meanings in the context of our interactions with others.

In terms of education this is reflected in the idea that we learn more effectively when we’re surrounded and supported by more-knowledgeable individuals and while this initially means teachers it can progressively involve fellow students becoming “knowledgeable assets” in the context of our individual learning.

In a nutshell, scaffolding involves the idea that when confronted with teaching and learning something new, students initially rely on the support and guidance of knowledgeable assets such as teachers, but as they become more confident in their acquisition of knowledge such support can be progressively withdrawn – a bit like removing the training wheels on a bike when a child is learning how to ride independently.

This general idea both reinforces and reinterprets the role of the teacher in the classroom: rather than simply being “the giver of knowledge”, teachers provide a general structure for learning within which students can learn to be creative without ever veering too far away from the point of the overall exercise.

Although this may sound suspiciously like recent attempts to reinvent teachers as “facilitators of learning” (whatever that actually means), it’s really not. Rather than reducing or diminishing the role of the teacher, their role is enhanced as they create a structure within which students can develop their knowledge and understanding in a context that supports their learning. Teachers in this respect become both instructors and nurturers of knowledge.

Although the precise form of the scaffolding used within the classroom is a matter for personal development – some aspects work better than others for different subjects and different contexts – it’s possible to suggest a general form of scaffolding that can then be adapted to the particular needs of particular teachers in particular classrooms.

Basic Structure

Every time you’re introducing new learning it’s useful to begin with a question. It’s a useful technique in this context because it provides a clear and concise focus for whatever needs to be taught and learnt. In this instance, let’s assume that you’re at the start of a sociology course and you want to introduce the subject of “society” as a way of getting students to understand what it is and what it involves.

1. Begin with a question.

For example, you can start the lesson with a short introduction to the concept of “society”, with the initial question being: “What is Society?”.

2. Present the students with a problem to solve.

The next step in the development of the scaffold is to reconfigure the question as a problem. You might, for example, suggest that “the problem” here is how to define “society” – and this invites your students to think about how it might be solved.

3. Where are we starting from?

The first step on the journey to finding a solution to the problem is to discover what we (they) already know. This involves mapping-out any ideas they may have (and this can include prompting and prodding them into directions you want them to eventually explore). How you carry this part of the process out is entirely up to you and your preferred way of teaching: scaffolding can, in this respect, be a very flexible way of teaching. For some teachers this stage of the building process might involve question-and-answer probing, others might like to set-up small group exercises or whatever.

4. Where are we going?

The next step is to build on the previous step, which if you’ve planned everything correctly will have produced a wide range of ideas about “society” that can be researched in more depth and detail. The objective here is to move towards some sort of answers or solutions to the problem you’ve posed.

Once again, how your students get there is a matter for you. You may want to set individuals / groups certain tasks based on what was produced in step 3 (which, in the main, should have turned-out to be exactly what you wanted / planned – it makes everything that much easier) but you don’t have to. It’s your classroom and you decide what happens within its walls.

However you decide this “research process” exercise, the next step is to start to bring everything back together.

5. Mystery Mapped?

As a class you need to start to bring the work your students have done individually or in small groups together so that everyone can start to share the information they’ve researched. Although you’ll probably find a great deal of duplication here there will be things that some students / groups have explored / discovered that others will not have thought about.

As the teacher you can decide what needs to be explained further, elaborated or discussed with the class and once you’ve exhausted as many of the possibilities as time will allow you can move to the next stage:

6. Shared Solutions?

Here you need to “collectively” decide which of the solutions to the question (What is Society) are the most useful or which need to be explored in more depth and detail. Again, you can direct the discussion in whatever way you think will be more useful or helpful and it might be the case that some ideas lend themselves to further development at a later time.

The aim of this section should be to map-out a list of “shared solutions” (or Notes as they’re sometimes called) to the question.

7. Question the map.

The final part of the process involves asking further questions about the information that the students have developed to answer the original question. This might involve developing particular points in more detail. Equally it might involve thinking about further questions that derive from the collected information. Either way, these form the basis for the next set of questions and their possible solutions…

As I’ve set it out here this is one possible way to scaffold your teaching in order to help students develop as independent learners.

It’s not something that’s set hard-and-fast so feel free to adapt it in whatever way you see fit.

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