Scaffolding: Resources to Support Student Learning | Steve Barkley

Reflecting on Scaffolding

The term scaffold as used in building construction is described as a temporary structure for holding workers and materials during the building, repair or decoration of a structure. When applied to teaching, scaffolding is considered to be resources and/or guidance to support student learning. I have explored scaffolding when observing instruction. I often find two concerns:

  1. The lack of necessary scaffolding – Insufficient scaffolding is observed when students in an independent activity lack the background or understanding to complete the task at a level that is going to impact the students’ learning.
  2. Over scaffolding – Interferes with the student being engaged in the elements of the learning task that are most likely to cause the greatest increase in student learning gains. The task can become too easy, removing the appropriate stretch needed for learning. (Source: Zone of Proximal Development)
scaffolding chart


“Scaffolding is a process through which a teacher or more competent peer gives aid to the student in her/his ZPD as necessary, and tapers off this aid as it becomes unnecessary, much as a scaffold is removed from a building during construction.”

When all students in a class are approaching the same learning task with the same teacher support it is likely both under and over scaffolding are present. A teacher’s focus on the outcome as a product rather than a learning process may interfere with maximizing learning.

As a teacher focuses on the learning process, she considers,“What is the appropriate amount of struggle?” and “What’s the positive struggle that creates the greatest learning?” When the teacher is instead focused on achieving the outcome, she may provide more scaffolding than is necessary to guarantee that the student has a successful outcome. (The more I think about this, the more I’m pondering if the scaffold analogy from construction was an inappropriate one for us to take on because that scaffolding is present to get the outcome and the scaffolding comes down when the outcome has been achieved.)

When a student struggles at the right level, it produces the maximum amount of learning. In many cases, the teacher may need to start instruction without having the scaffolding in place. Next, she can observing the level of student effort, the initial signs of progress, and/or the student’s struggle and frustration. After this information is gathered, the teacher can better design the appropriate scaffolding for that particular student at that particular time.


I believe that a teacher recognizes that some students need a certain level of scaffolding in order to successfully initiate and complete an assigned task. As a result, she may generalize and provide the same scaffolding to the entire class. For example, a teacher may do two or three practice problems on the board, reviewing the work from yesterday before starting on the day’s content. She knows that there are some students who need to review, but she also knows that there is a group of students who could progress onto with the new task without the review. By providing that scaffolding, the teacher is preventing some students from practicing a set of learning behaviors leading to independence.

So what should she do instead? The teacher should start the lesson without the scaffolding and then begin to provide it as the need emerges. Another solution is to allow the students to self-assess and offer the scaffolding for students who think they need it, while offering the opportunity to jump into the new task for the other students who don’t need the extra support.

Overall, a teacher’s work with scaffolding might look more like a dance, or in effect, an improv. The teacher starts students on a task and then observes the students  in order to determine when to provide more support. As the teacher provides that support, she watches the student and decides when to draw back.

Dan Meyer, in a blog, pointed out that while you can always add scaffolding as needed, you can’t subtract it. Most math textbooks over scaffold. Once you’ve provided the scaffolding to the student, it’s a done deal. You can draw back from it, but you can’t experience what would have happened had you not given the scaffolding.

As I read the above blog, I wondered if as a teacher I’m best to err on the side of too little scaffolding because I can always make a decision to come back and add more support. If I over scaffold, then I may get the students to a successful outcome quicker, but deny the students the opportunity to learn through the struggle process.

Providing scaffolding is a great area for teachers to explore with coaches. Ask the coach to observe students, looking for indications that some may need additional scaffolding. Also request an observer to identify any places where more scaffolding than needed might have been provided.

Coaches and school leaders should consider how they scaffold work with teachers. Are there times that because some teachers need more support, we end up scaffolding the activity for the whole staff? Some leaders scaffold with forms and protocols for PLCs that need the guidance while perhaps holding back a PLC that is ready to risk and go forth with more independent learning direction.

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One Response to “ Reflecting on Scaffolding ”

  1. Mandy Collins Says:

    Thank you- the part about being over scaffolded in text books is so true! The productive struggle is needed for optimal growth!

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