6g. Scaffolding

Lindsay Lipscomb, Janet Swanson, and Anne West
The University of Georgia

Review of Scaffolding


Figure 1. Barn and Silos

Third grade students in Mrs. Maddox’s class have been studying about different types of communities for the past two weeks. Throughout this study, students have focused on distinguishing between rural, urban and suburban communities. Living in a rural community, students are familiar with large expanses of land, farms, considerable distances between houses, and lack of malls, skyscrapers and entertainment venues. In contrast with that, the students took a field trip to downtown Atlanta to experience tall buildings, public transportation, commuters, super highways, extensive shopping, sports arenas and fine arts venues. Through this trip, they came to have a better understanding of an urban community. Between the school and downtown Atlanta, students were exposed to suburban communities as the bus took them through a neighborhood and a community outside the perimeter. Students experienced rows of houses, commuters, strip malls, eating establishments, churches and parks. The students were better able to apply the knowledge of their classroom activities to the field trip and could easily determine the differences between each type of community.

Figure 2. City and Tall Buildings

As a culminating activity for this study on types of communities, the students are going to prepare some type of individually selected project demonstrating their knowledge of urban, suburban and rural communities. Mrs. Maddox makes suggestions as to the types of projects students might consider. Some choose to write and illustrate a book, others write and perform a play, and still others film a video using footage taken from their trip. One student focuses on interviewing residents of each community.

Patrick, the computer whiz of the class, decides to prepare a PowerPoint presentation which will incorporate digital pictures taken on the field trip and of the rural areas surrounding the school community. He has successfully written the text for his slides but has been unable to insert the digital pictures from his disk. Mrs. Maddox notices that Patrick is experiencing frustration with his inability to insert the pictures. She approaches to offer help, not to complete the task for Patrick, but rather to provide support and to help him achieve his objective on his own.

Figure 3. Computer

Mrs. Maddox thinks aloud as she offers help: “Let’s see. I want to insert a picture into the slide from the disk. I need to go to the toolbar at the top and select ‘insert’ since that’s what I want to do. And since it’s a picture that I want to insert, I’ll select ‘picture’. Now I have to tell the computer where to find the picture I want. Since the picture is on a disk, I’ll select ‘from file’. Then I’ll click ‘insert’ and viola`! My picture is there. Now all I have to do is save it”. As Mrs. Maddox talks through the steps, Patrick carefully follows her prompts and completes each step. He beams as he sees the selected picture on his slide. Mrs. Maddox then teaches Patrick a chant she has composed that will assist him with the steps: “In-sert a picture from a file; locate the file and se-lect the pic; click to in-sert and save it, quick!” She watches as Patrick goes through the steps, questioning him with leading questions when he hesitates, and listens while he quietly says the chant to himself to perform the task. Again, he beams with excitement as the slide displays the selected picture. Mrs. Maddox moves away from the computer and allows Patrick to insert the next picture on his own. Seeing that he is successful, she moves on to assist another student.

Later, when another student, Melissa, needs assistance with inserting a picture to a PowerPoint slide, Mrs. Maddox asks Patrick to be a peer tutor to her. He further expands his learning by explaining the steps to Melissa and by teaching her the same chant he used to complete the steps to insert a picture in the PowerPoint slide.

Through her support and facilitation, Mrs. Maddox helped Patrick master a skill and achieve independence through carefully designed instruction called scaffolding. This process of scaffolding is much like the traditional definition of scaffolding as a temporary support system used until the task is complete and the building stands without support. Such is the concept of scaffolding. Immediate support is given to students in order to help them achieve skill or task independence. This assistance is a temporary framework provided by the teacher or a more knowledgeable person to assist students in performing a task they otherwise cannot accomplish without assistance. Support is provided to the learner and then gradually removed so that the student can become a self-regulated, independent learner. “Although the teacher assumes much of the control during scaffolded instruction, the ultimate goal of instruction is covert, independent self-regulatory learning” (Ellis et al. 1994).

This is supposed to be a flash animation. You’ll need the flash plugin and a browser that supports it to view it.

Caption: In this animation, each box represents scaffolding provided by the teacher, and with each activity the level of learning goes up. The first box represents verbalizing thought process, the second box represents guided practice, the third box represents mnumonic device-chant, and the fourth box represents tutoring other students. The colors of each level indicate the Zone of Proximal Development. Mary Lewis, Steve Ferguson and Willie Mazyck (2005).

What is Scaffolding?

The term ‘scaffolding’ comes from the works of Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976). The term ‘scaffolding’ was developed as a metaphor to describe the type of assistance offered by a teacher or peer to support learning. In the process of scaffolding, the teacher helps the student master a task or concept that the student is initially unable to grasp independently. The teacher offers assistance with only those skills that are beyond the student’s capability. Of great importance is allowing the student to complete as much of the task as possible, unassisted. The teacher only attempts to help the student with tasks that are just beyond his current capability. Student errors are expected, but, with teacher feedback and prompting, the student is able to achieve the task or goal. When the student takes responsibility for or masters the task, the teacher begins the process of “fading”, or the gradual removal of the scaffolding, which allows the student to work independently. “Scaffolding is actually a bridge used to build upon what students already know to arrive at something they do not know. If scaffolding is properly administered, it will act as an enabler, not as a disabler” (Benson, 1997).

Many different facilitative tools can be utilized in scaffolding student learning. Among them are: breaking the task into smaller more, manageable parts; using ‘think alouds’, or verbalizing thinking processes when completing a task; cooperative learning, which promotes teamwork and dialogue among peers; concrete prompts, questioning; coaching; cue cards or modeling. Others might include the activation of background knowledge, giving tips, strategies, cues and procedures. Teachers have to be mindful of keeping the learner in pursuit of the task while minimizing the learner’s stress level. Skills or tasks too far out of reach can lead a student to his frustration level, and tasks that are too simple can cause much the same effect.

Each facilitative method used is chosen as an individually tailored instructional tool. Teachers have to have open dialogue with the students to determine what and how they are thinking in order to clear up misconceptions and to individualize instruction. Crucial to successful scaffolding is an understanding of the student’s prior knowledge and abilities. The teacher must ascertain what the student already knows so that it can be “hooked”, or connected to the new knowledge and made relevant to the learner’s life, thus increasing the motivation to learn.

In the scenario example, Mrs. Maddox used several different strategies to help Patrick learn the steps to inserting a picture in his PowerPoint project. By thinking aloud, Mrs. Maddox verbalized her thinking processes for Patrick. Hearing the process, Patrick was able to follow her thinking and take control of the computer. Using a mnemonic device, the chant, she enabled Patrick to verbalize the process himself. Internalizing the chant, he was able to complete the task. Questioning and prompting enabled Patrick to think through the process until he was able to insert a picture with very limited help. Mrs. Maddox gradually reduces the amount of help she gives Patrick, eventually allowing him to complete the task independently. She further expands his knowledge by asking him to assist another student. While tutoring another student, he is able to think through the process and verbalize the steps in a manner in which others can understand.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Inherent in scaffolded instruction is Lev Vygotsky’s (1978) idea of the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky suggests that there are two parts of a learner’s developmental level: the “actual developmental level” and the “potential developmental level”. The zone of proximal development is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). The zone of proximal development (ZPD) can also be described as the area between what a learner can do by himself and that which can be attained with the help of a ‘more knowledgeable other’ adult or peer. The ‘more knowledgeable other’, or MKO, shares knowledge with the student to bridge the gap between what is known and what is not known. Once the student has expanded his knowledge, the actual developmental level has been expanded and the ZPD has shifted. The ZPD is always changing as the student expands and gains knowledge, so scaffolded instruction must constantly be individualized to address the changing ZPD of each student.

It was Vygotsky’s belief that “good learning” occurs in the child’s zone of proximal development. Important to teaching in the ZPD is the determination of what the student can manage on his own and to allow the student to do as much as possible without any assistance. “Fading” is the process of gradually removing the scaffolding that was put into place for the child until it is completely gone. Eventually, the child internalizes the information and becomes a self-regulated, independent learner. (For a more thorough look at Vygotsky’s theories and his works relating to ZPD and MKO see the chapter in this e-book entitled Vygotsky’s Constructionism.)

Until students can demonstrate task mastery of new or difficult tasks, they are given more assistance or support from a teacher or a more knowledgeable other (MKO). As the learner moves toward mastery, the assistance or support is gradually decreased in order to shift the responsibility for learning from the MKO to the learner (Larkin, 2002). Zhao and Orey (1999) summarize, “scaffolding is a metaphor to characterize a special type of instructional process which works in a task-sharing situation between the teacher and the learner.” The authors further delineate this basic idea into two key aspects (or rules): “(a) help the learner with those aspects of the task that the learner can not manage yet; and (b) allow the learner to do as much as he or she can without help” (p. 6).

Characteristics and Critical Features of Scaffolded Instruction

Lange (2002) states that there are two major steps involved in instructional scaffolding: (1) “development of instructional plans to lead the students from what they already know to a deep understanding of new material,” and (2) “execution of the plans, wherein the instructor provides support to the students at every step of the learning process.” In an appropriate scaffolding process, there will be specific identifiable features that are in place to allow facilitation of assisting the learner in internalizing the knowledge until mastery occurs. Applebee and Langer (1983), as cited by Zhao and Orey (1999), identify these five features as:

  • Intentionality: The task has a clear overall purpose driving any separate activity that may contribute to the whole.
  • Appropriateness: Instructional tasks pose problems that can be solved with help but which students could not successfully complete on their own.
  • Structure: Modeling and questioning activities are structured around a model of appropriate approaches to the task and lead to a natural sequence of thought and language.
  • Collaboration: The teacher’s response to student work recasts and expands upon the students’ efforts without rejecting what they have accomplished on their own. The teacher’s primary role is collaborative rather than evaluative.
  • Internalization: External scaffolding for the activity is gradually withdrawn as the patterns are internalized by the students (p. 6).

Larkin (2002) states, “Scaffolding is one of the principles of effective instruction that enables teachers to accommodate individual student needs.” In keeping with this theory, it can be seen that instruction must also be tailored around “contingent instruction”, which is a term identified by Reichgerlt, Shadbolt, Paskiewica, Wood, & Wood (1993) as cited by Zhao and Orey (1999). The teacher or MKO realizes that the amount of instructional support given is dependent upon the outcome of the previous assistance. If a learner is unable to complete a task after an intervention by the MKO, then he or she is immediately given a more specific directive. Equally, if the learner is successful with an intervention, then he or she is given a less explicit directive the next time he or she needs assistance. Next, the instructor or MKO must recognize that the instructional intervention must be specific to the task the learner is currently attempting to complete. Finally, the teacher must keep in the forefront of the process that the student must be given ample time to apply the directive or to try a new move him/herself before additional intervention is supplied. We can explore this type of instruction through the introductory scenario about Mrs. Maddox’s class’ study of communities.

In our scenario Mrs. Maddox showed intentionality by providing activities for her students to enhance the study of rural, urban and suburban communities. She drew on prior knowledge of the rural area by reminding students of the characteristics of the area in which they live. Next, she introduced urban and suburban communities by providing a field trip to Atlanta, an urban environment. The students also experienced suburban communities by driving through several of these areas on the way to Atlanta.

Appropriateness was displayed by her choice of projects for her students. Even though she offered the students a choice, they were limited by her menu of projects. Her selections were made by including only those which the students could not successfully complete on their own. In other words, the projects are just beyond their zone of proximal development.

The Structure of modeling and questioning activities provides appropriate approaches to the tasks for the students. Mrs. Maddox uses verbalizing for Patrick as well as modeling. He is then allowed to become a peer tutor in order to expand his knowledge.

Collaboration is also seen in her work with Patrick. She did not tell him that he was wrong but, instead, analyzed his approach, verbalized the steps necessary to complete the task while modeling the skills needed. She then invited him to join her in a chant to help him remember the steps of the process.

Finally, Internalization is evidenced by Mrs. Maddox’s fading of her scaffolding and allowing Patrick to become a peer tutor for Melissa.

Six General Elements of Scaffolded Instruction

Scaffolded instruction can be analyzed for application through its six general elements. Zhao and Orey (1999) identify these six general features of the scaffolding process as: sharing a specific goal, whole task approach, immediate availability of help, intention assisting, optimal level of help, and conveying an expert model.

Click Here to play a narrated PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the content in this page. This narrated presentation was created by Karen Garner, Shelby Day, and Suzanne Kiefer (Fall, 2007).

Sharing a Specific Goal

It is the teacher’s responsibility to establish the shared goal. However, the learner’s interests must be recruited or enlisted through the teacher’s ability to communicate with the learner and achieve intersubjectivity (sharing intentions, perceptions, feelings and conceptions) (Zhao & Orey, 1999). The teacher must do some pre-assessment of the student and the curriculum. Achievement of curriculum objectives is planned as the teacher considers the needs of each student. The teacher must be considerate of some of the unique, unusual, and often ineffective problem-solving techniques that children use. As discussed in the chapter on the Six C’s of motivation, allowing input from the student on the shared goal will enhance intrinsic motivation. It will also help control the frustration level of the learner as he or she will feel that their interests have been validated. It will assist the learner in establishing a desire to master the goal where success is contingent upon one’s own ability in developing new skills. In this manner, the process of learning itself is esteemed, and the attainment of mastery is seen as being directly correlated with the effort put forth.

Whole Task Approach

In the Whole Task Approach, the focus is on the overall goal to be attained throughout the entire process. Consequently, the task is learned as a whole instead of a set of individual sub-skills. Each feature of the lesson is learned as it relates to the whole task. This approach lessens the amount of passive knowledge on the part of the learner and the need for transfer is not as great. It must be noted that this approach is only effective if the learner does not experience extreme difficulty with any of the component skills needed to complete the whole task. Imagine how difficult it would be to scaffold a child in telling time if they could not identify the numbers 1 through 12.

Immediate Availability of Help

Frequent success is important in scaffolding especially in helping control frustration levels of the learner. Student successes may be experienced more often if the MKO provides assistance in a timely and effective manner so as to enable the learner to proceed with the task. These successes, in turn, help to increase motivation through a positive self-efficacy and make the learner’s time and effort more productive. This procedure directly corresponds to the first rule of scaffolding as defined by Zhao & Orey (1999), which is to assist the learner with those tasks he/she is not yet able to carry out on his/her own.


It is central to the scaffolding process to supply assistance to the learner’s present focus, thereby helping the learner with his/her current difficulties. In providing this immediate help with the current task at hand, a more productive learning environment is fostered because information has been related and conferred according to the learner’s focus keeping the learner in pursuit of the task. However, it is often necessary to redirect the intentions of the learner if they do not represent an effective strategy for completing the task. The teacher or MKO must be cognizant that there are numerous ways of accomplishing a certain task. If the learner’s current path is effective, it should be accepted as it is the essence of scaffolding to help the learner proceed with the least amount of assistance as possible. If the MKO finds him/herself consistently helping a learner with low level intentions, it may be a good idea to turn to coaching as a strategy to help the learner progress. This is beneficial in that it helps the learner examine the task from a different perspective so as to encourage higher level thinking skills.

Optimal Level of Help

What the learner is able to do should be matched with the level of assistance provided. The learner should be given just enough help to overcome the current obstacle, but the level of assistance should not hinder the learner from contributing and participating in the learning process of that particular task. In other words, the assistance should only attend to the areas of the task that he/she cannot accomplish on his/her own. No intervention should be made if the current task is within the learner’s capabilities. However, if the learner lacks the necessary skills, a demonstration is needed.

Conveying an Expert Model

An expert model can provide an explicit example of the task as the expert way of accomplishing the task. The techniques for accomplishing the task are clearly expressed. In an implicit demonstration, the information is outlined around the expert model.

Methods of Instructional Scaffolding

Lange (2002) states that based on the work of Hogan and Pressley (1997) there are five different methods in instructional scaffolding: modeling of desired behaviors, offering explanations, inviting students to participate, verifying and clarifying student understandings, and inviting students to contribute clues. These techniques are used to direct students toward self-regulation and independence.

The first step in instructional scaffolding is usually modeling. Lange (2002) cites Hogan and Pressley (1997) as defining modeling as, “teaching behavior that shows how one should feel, think or act within a given situation.” There are three types of modeling. Think-aloud modeling gives auditory substance to the thought processes associated with a task. For example, a teacher might verbalize her thought processes for breaking an unfamiliar word down into its parts so that it can be read. Talk-aloud modeling involves verbalizing the thought process or problem solving strategy while demonstrating the task. An example would be a teacher verbally describing her thought processes as she demonstrates the correct way to subtract two digit numbers on the board. Lastly, there is performance modeling. Performance modeling requires no verbal instruction. For example, a baseball coach might show one of his players how to get under a ball to catch it (Lange, 2002).

As well as modeling, the instructor needs to offer explanations. These explanations should openly address the learner’s comprehension about what is being learned, why and when it is used, and how it is used (Lange, 2002). At the beginning, explanations are detailed and comprehensive and repeated often. As the learner progresses in his knowledge, explanations may consist of only key words and prompts to help the learner remember important information. For example, when teaching children how to identify adjectives in a sentence, the teacher will need to lead the children through learning the detailed definition of an adjective in the beginning. The instructor may have to repeat or rephrase this thorough explanation many times during guided practice. As the students gain experience, the teacher might just prompt the students with words like “what kind”, “which one” and “how many.”

Lange (2002) next addresses inviting student participation, especially in the early stages of scaffolding. This technique will heighten student engagement and ownership in the learning process. It will also provide the instructor with an opportunity to emphasize or correct understandings of the task. This leads us to verifying and clarifying student understandings. As students become familiar with new material, it is key for the teacher to evaluate student understanding and provide positive and corrective feedback.

Points to Consider When Implementing Instructional Scaffolding:

Larkin (2002) suggests that teachers can follow a few effective techniques of scaffolding:

Begin by boosting confidence. Introduce students first to tasks they can perform with little or no assistance. This will improve self-efficacy. Provide enough assistance to allow students to achieve success quickly. This will help lower frustration levels and ensure that students remain motivated to advance to the next step. This will also help guard against students giving up due to repeated failures. Help students “fit in.” Students may actually work harder if they feel as if they resemble their peers. Avoid boredom. Once a skill is learned, don’t overwork it. Look for clues that the learner is mastering the task. Scaffolding should be removed gradually and then removed completely when mastery of the task is demonstrated.

Applications of Scaffolding

Scaffolding is used in a very wide range of situations. Mothers naturally employ this approach as they teach their children how to live in and enjoy their world. Teachers, from Pre-K to Adult Education appreciate the necessity and increased learning afforded by the use of these techniques. Non-traditional educational settings, such as business training scenarios and athletic teams, also use these methods to assure the success of their employees and/or members. Teachers and trainers can even use the techniques and strategies of scaffolding without even knowing the name of this useful method. It is a very natural approach to ensure the learning of the student.

Pre – School (Toddlers)

Morelock, Brown and Morrissey (2003) noted in their study that mothers adapt their scaffolding to the perceived abilities of their children. The mothers scaffold interactions at play by modeling or prompting behaviors which they see demonstrated by their child or just beyond the level demonstrated. For instance, the very young child is playing with blocks by stacking them on top of each other. The mother attracts the child’s attention and models how to “build” a wall or bridge by stacking them in a different way and using a toy person or truck to climb the wall or ride over the bridge. She then watches and assists as needed until the child appropriates the skill or loses interest and moves on to something else. She will try again the next time the child is playing with the blocks or try another construction which she feels will be more attractive to the child.

The study further suggested that the mother will adapt her scaffolding behavior to the needs of her child. If she sees that the child is imaginative and creative, she will then scaffold beyond the apparent skill level exhibited. Conversely, if she perceives that the child is less attentive or exhibits behaviors which are not easy to decipher, she will then demonstrate new skills instead of extensions to the skills already present. The authors suggest that this could be a possible early indicator for giftedness.

Pre-K through Grade 5 (Elementary School)

An elementary math teacher is introducing the addition of two digit numbers. She first solicits the students’ interest by using a “hook” such as an interesting story or situation. Then she reduces the number of steps for initial success by modeling, verbally talking through the steps as she works and allowing the students to work with her on the sample problems. An overhead projector is a great tool for this activity because the teacher is able to face the class while she works the problems. She can then pick up non-verbal cues from the class as she works. The students’ interest is held by asking them to supply two digit numbers for addition, playing “Stump the Teacher”. She takes this opportunity for further modeling of the skills and verbally presenting the process as she works through these problems.

The students are then allowed to work several problems independently as the teacher watches and provides assistance where needed. The success rate is increased by providing these incremental opportunities for success. Some students may require manipulatives to solve the problems and some may require further “talking through” the procedures. These strategies may be applied individually or in small groups.

More challenging problems can then be added to the lesson. Further explicit modeling and verbalization will be required. Some students will be able to work independently while some will require more assistance and scaffolding. She will begin to fade the scaffolding as soon as she is sure that the students can effectively function alone.

Upper Grades (6-12)

Banaszynski (2000) provides another example of instructional scaffolding in his article about a project in which a group of eighth-grade history students in Wisconsin examined the Revolutionary War from two points of view—American and British. He began by guiding his students as they undertook a sequential series of activities in order to thoroughly investigate the opposing reactions to causes of the war. Then students contributed to a class timeline which detailed causes, actions and reactions. Banaszynski describes how work continued:

“ After the timeline was completed, the students were arranged in groups, and each group did a critical analysis of primary-source material, focusing on the efforts each side made to avoid the war. This started students thinking about what the issues were and how each side handled them. The next step was to ask a question: Did the colonists have legitimate reasons for going to war against Great Britain? [I] asked each group to choose either the Patriot or Loyalist position and spend a day searching the Internet for primary sources and other materials to support their positions.”

The instructor continued scaffolding by interviewing the groups to probe for misconceptions, need for redirection, or re-teaching. Students later compared research and wrote essays that were analyzed and evaluated by fellow students using rubrics; groups then composed essays that included the strongest arguments from the individual works. The project, Banaszynski says, was an enormous success; students began the unit working as individuals reliant upon him for instruction. As work proceeded, the feedback framework was altered so that students were guiding each other and, in turn, themselves. Banaszynski’s role in guiding the research and leading the reporting activities faded as the project continued and requirements became more complicated. As a result, students were able to appreciate their mastery of both materials and skills.

Adult and Higher Education

Kao, Lehman, & Cennamo (1996) postulated that scaffolds could be embedded in hypermedia or multimedia software to provide students with support while using the software. They realized that soft scaffolds are dynamic, situation-specific aids provided by a teacher or peer while hard scaffolds are static and specific. Thus, hard scaffolds can be anticipated and planned based on typical student difficulties with a task. With these two aspects in mind, they developed a piece of software called “Decision Point” and tested it with a group of students.

They embedded three types of hard scaffolds: conceptual scaffolds, specific strategic scaffolds, and procedural scaffolds. The conceptual scaffolds assisted the students in organizing their ideas and connecting them to related information. The specific strategic scaffolds were included to help the students ask more specific questions and the procedural scaffolds were useful to clarify specific tasks such as presentations. Examples of these types of embedded scaffolds include: interactive essays, recommended documents, student guides, student journal, and storyboard templates.

This type of software would be very useful in higher education and adult learning because it is portable, could be used asynchronously, and allows the learners more independence. One or two initial face-to-face sessions would be required to teach the basics, establish learning communities and relate the class expectations and timeline. The students could then proceed at their pace while working within the framework of their group and the class expectations. The instructor would provide feedback to groups and individuals, be available for assistance and scaffold specific students at their point of need.

If software with built in scaffolds is not available, then the instructor could provide a similar environment by having an open classroom in which the students are provided with the expectations and a timeline at the onset. They may then choose to attend face-to-face classes, work independently, or work in groups. The more knowledgeable students, as well as the instructor, could then provide scaffolding in and out of the classroom. The hard scaffolds could be provided with textbooks and references and links on the class website. The instructor would still provide feedback on assignments and class work, be available for assistance, and scaffold specific individuals or groups at their point of need.

Appropriately, more responsibility is placed on the adult learner. Motivation comes from within and is based on the learner’s goals and objectives such as advanced degrees, career opportunities, and increased pay. Ultimately, the learner assumes a dual role in that they are students and peer instructors as they scaffold their classmates.

Dance in the Landscape

Diane Wilder (2003) wrote about an open-ended form of dance creation experience that was presented at the founding community dance conference “Moving On 2000” in Sydney, Australia. The first workshop participants created a piece based on their collaborative efforts in “inviting and layering ideas, making and linking connections, interplay of relationships, and harnessing the collective wisdom”. The dancers then re-grouped for successive workshops within the conference structure.

In each re-grouping, the attendees taught, scaffolded, and collaborated with one another to further the dance piece. If someone did not understand the layer that was created at a previous workshop, the participants familiar with that sequence would then scaffold by first checking for prior knowledge. Then, they would model the dance sequence and have their fellow learners follow along. This step would be repeated several times, then the “instructors” would step back to watch. Interventions would take place when appropriate until the novices had mastered the sequence.

Scaffolding would then fade as the participants began to extend the creation of the dance with sequences of their own. The beauty of this type of scaffolding at a conference is that everyone would have the opportunity to either provide scaffolding or to be the recipient of the scaffolding. As the participants went on to successive workshops, new groups were formed with different sets of prior knowledge. The task was then to build upon that knowledge base by collaborating to learn new sequences and then expand upon that base by adding another set of dance elements.


Mr. Longstreet is the trainer for High Point National Bank. His responsibilities include training new cashiers as well as updating all employees on technology upgrades and new programs. As new employees enter the business, he contacts them to set up a training schedule. Each new employee is provided with a manual, a CDRom of the introductory presentation, and a mentor.

Mr. Longstreet begins the training program with a tour of the bank’s facilities. He is careful to mention and point out the placement and uses of the equipment for which the new employees will be responsible. Next, they meet for a face-to-face orientation presentation. He provides an overview of the manual by using Power Point and a projector. The employees are encouraged to mark any portions of the manual with which they feel uncomfortable and note questions in the margin.

The mentors then take over and the new employees spend several hours shadowing them to gain insight into operations and have a chance to ask questions. The mentors assess their protégés during this process in order to provide feedback to the trainer about gaps in their knowledge or specific problem areas.

The third session is held in the computer lab at the main office. The cashiers-in-training are instructed in a hands-on work session using the actual programs and real life scenarios included in the manual’s appendix. The trainer is able to scaffold each individual at their point of need based on his own observations as well as the information provided to him by the mentors. The learners continue to work through the scenarios at their own pace while the trainer circulates through the lab modeling, questioning or providing feedback as needed.

Now the new cashiers are ready to work in tandem with their mentor. They first watch the mentor and answer questions, and then they are given the responsibility of handling transactions while the mentor takes the backseat. They are in charge, but the mentor is right there to intervene in case of a lapse in memory or a new situation. Fading begins and new scaffolding opportunities are encountered as the zone of proximal development expands with the new cashiers’ acquired knowledge and skills.

Finally, the cashiers are ready to function on their own. The mentor will continue to periodically contact and question the cashier as well as be available for comments and questions that may arise during the workday. The trainer will hold his final follow-up session in about two weeks to update the new cashiers on any recent changes, allow time for questions, and assess the learners with a final scenario.

Challenges and Benefits of Scaffolding

As with any other learning theory or strategy, there are challenges and benefits to scaffolding. Understanding and comparing both will assist the educational professional or trainer in their assessment of the usefulness of the strategies and techniques as well as allow for comprehensive planning before implementation. The challenges are real but can be overcome with careful planning and preparation.


  • Very time consuming
  • Lack of sufficient personnel
  • Potential for misjudging the zone of proximal development; success hinges on identifying the area that is just beyond but not too far beyond students’ abilities
  • Inadequately modeling the desired behaviors, strategies or activities because the teacher has not fully considered the individual student’s needs, predilections, interests, and abilities (such as not showing a student how to “double click” on an icon when using a computer)
  • Full benefits not seen unless the instructors are properly trained
  • Requires the teacher to give up control as fading occurs
  • Lack of specific examples and tips in teacher’s editions of textbooks

When assessing the benefits of scaffolding, it is necessary to consider the context in which you wish to implement the strategies and techniques. Additionally, you must know the learners and evaluate their particular needs first.


  • Possible early identifier of giftedness
  • Provides individualized instruction
  • Greater assurance of the learner acquiring the desired skill, knowledge or ability
  • Provides differentiated instruction
  • Delivers efficiency – Since the work is structured, focused, and glitches have been reduced or eliminated prior to initiation, time on task is increased and efficiency in completing the activity is increased.
  • Creates momentum – Through the structure provided by scaffolding, students spend less time searching and more time on learning and discovering resulting in quicker learning
  • Engages the learner
  • Motivates the learner to learn
  • Minimizes the level of frustration for the learner

Effective Teaching Principles

Another major benefit of scaffolding is that it supports the ten principles of effective teaching highlighted in Ellis, Worthington and Larkin’s (n.d.) Executive Summary of the Research Synthesis on Effective Teaching Principles and the Design of Quality Tools for Educators. These ten principles are:

Principle 1: Students learn more when they are engaged actively during an instructional task.

Principle 2: High and moderate success rates are correlated positively with student learning outcomes, and low success rates are correlated negatively with student learning outcomes.

Principle 3: Increased opportunity to learn content is correlated positively with increased student achievement. Therefore, the more content covered, the greater the potential for student learning.

Principle 4: Students achieve more in classes in which they spend much of their time being directly taught or supervised by their teacher.

Principle 5: Students can become independent, self-regulated learners through instruction that is deliberately and carefully scaffolded.

Principle 6: The critical forms of knowledge associated with strategic learning are (a) declarative knowledge, (b) procedural knowledge, and (c) conditional knowledge. Each of these must be addressed if students are to become independent, self-regulated learners.

Principle 7: Learning is increased when teaching is presented in a manner that assists students in organizing, storing, and retrieving knowledge.

Principle 8: Students can become more independent, self-regulated learners through strategic instruction.

Principle 9: Students can become independent, self-regulated learners through instruction that is explicit.

Principle 10: By teaching sameness both within and across subjects, teachers promote the ability of students to access potentially relevant knowledge in novel problem-solving situations.

Each one of these principles can be supported (see red highlights) with the use of scaffolding. In our efforts to provide the best educational opportunities for all of our students, we must continue to research and test cutting-edge strategies and techniques while employing the tried and true methods of effective practice.


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APA Citation: Lipscomb, L., Swanson, J., West, A. (2004). Scaffolding. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/