According to the Glossary of Education Reform, instructional scaffolding is a technique teachers can use to help “move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.” Scaffolding is used as a temporary support which, like physical scaffolding, is incrementally removed when no longer needed. The goal is to shift more responsibility for the learning process to the student.
In a teacher-training module about providing instructional supports, the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University describes a clear analogy for scaffolding. When a child is first learning to walk, his parents hold him while his feet barely touch the floor, and he mimics walking. He moves on to standing on his own, supporting his weight by holding on to objects. The next phase may be walking while holding on to an object like a coffee table. The child may then take some tentative steps unassisted and finally walk and run completely on his own. As the child progresses, the supports are gradually removed.
This same process is used when providing instructional scaffolding to students. The goal is to gradually remove the supports and have the student progress unaided.
Best Practices for Effective Scaffolding
One of the most important ways a teacher can be sure the method of instructional scaffolding she is using is effective is to model the process of error detection and correction as part of the scaffolding process. The IRIS Center’s tips explain that when the teacher simulates getting stuck on a problem and models how to work through it instead of giving up, she is showing students that it’s okay to make a mistake. What is most important is that they understand what is wrong and figure out how to correct it.
The Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Toronto Scarborough published a guide on Instructional Scaffolding describing four methods of scaffolding that best support student learning.
Process Scaffolding is an effective approach to a complex assignment with which students may not have much experience.
Best practice: Ask students to imagine the finished product and break it down into its component parts. For example, start with a topic selection, do some preliminary research, evaluate your sources, and start writing a first draft.
Critical Thinking Scaffolding helps students improve the sophistication of their thinking and writing.
Best practice: Start with simpler assignments such as an abstract, a description or a quiz. As students demonstrate success, move on to more complex assignments that require interpretation, application or analysis, such as a case study or book review. Finally, encourage students to evaluate ideas with more comprehensive assignments like literature review or policy recommendation.
Disciplinary Practice helps students understand the skills required to complete an activity in a specific discipline, such as philosophy, biology, physics, math, English or psychology.
Best practice: Begin with building vocabulary and understanding basic concepts specific to that discipline. Choose assignments that are common to the discipline and have students complete at least one age-appropriate activity.
Blended Scaffolding takes advantage of aspects of different types of scaffolding, encouraging students to develop a range of skills.
Best practice: Be creative with assignments and stay focused on specific learning objectives. Be cautious about diluting key learning goals and overwhelming students. Challenge students, but do not attempt to accomplish too much in one assignment.
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