Who built that scaffolding?!


Scaffolding is essential for the greatest buildings in the World, but who puts it there?

Instructional scaffolding represents a method of teaching that is held in the highest regard by many educators, as a pedagogy that allows for supported risks to be taken, but protects the student from the harm and disengagement of failure. From as far back as the ’70s, this method has gained traction as support to problem solving.

But who owns scaffolding? Who builds it? Who decides when to take it down?

Very often, I see a huge amount of time and work put in by a teacher to create the “perfect” scaffold. (As with all things education, if it takes the teacher longer to make it, than the student uses it, its not a worthwhile use of time…) These supports will usually be in the form of resources, interesting tasks, templates or pro formas.

In the analogy of the scaffold, the architect and contractors are completely in control of when the scaffold is erected, what it looks like, how it works, and enforce the use of it in the builders. If we assume that the learners are the builders, then we run into a serious area of concern when the teacher owns the design and implementation of every aspect of the learning, and they choose when the scaffolding comes down.

Given that the goal of many classrooms is self-directed learning, it can be summarised that we are hoping that:

– Students have a tangible goal that is self-set (fixed scaffolding reduces the chance of achieving this goal)

– Their learning takes place at their pace (fixed scaffolding can assist in reaching this goal)

– Delivers predictions and future uses of information (fixed scaffolding may assist in reaching this goal)

– Promotes higher order thinking (fixed scaffolding has a small chance of assisting in achieving this goal)

So essentially, fixed scaffolds that are teacher produced and owned can be quite useful and are used widely to great effect. However, as a concept it needs improvement to make it useful in all facets of teaching. Ideally, learners determine the goals of learning, initiate purposive information-seeking behaviour by identifying and choosing possible sources, and interact with the sources to obtain the desired information. Semantic scaffolding (e.g. presenting advance organisers or learning objectives before learners engage in a problem) has been used for this very purpose and has been found to positively enhance learning, e.g. through activating prior knowledge, by directing cognitive activities or forming semantic macrostructures.

There are a variety of scaffolding prefixes around, all of which offer useful insights, but are all essentially asking to be the “next big thing”. Adaptive, content, metacognitive, etc. But these ideas have something in common that can be used to formulate an approach to scaffolding that focus on supporting the person. Metacognitive scaffolding focusses on guiding the students through a learning process, rather than providing them with the steps on the way to an outcome. While adaptive scaffolding has been proposed as a method of scaffolding student self-regulatory strategies (like planning and monitoring learning progress). These strategies can lead to fixed scaffolds, but they are typically owned by the student. In an adaptive system, the tutor adapts scaffolding hints dynamically to the current state of the learner. These adaptive scaffolds change with the learner and really don’t resemble the fixed structure that we associate with. In one area of research, both conditions (adaptive and fixed) were compared to a control condition in which no scaffolding was provided. The findings suggested that students in the adaptive scaffolding condition learned better than students in the other two conditions both in terms of gains in conceptual understanding and declarative knowledge. The authors attribute the results to more effective use of self regulatory behaviours in the adaptive condition which allowed students to learn more effectively. It was found that fixed scaffolding was as beneficial as no scaffolding in these terms.

This finally brings us to a question, rather than an answer…

How can we adapt our scaffolds so that they scaffold the learner and their approaches to knowledge, rather than scaffold to the outcome? Have a look at these for ideas on thinking narratives: habits of mind, thinking hats, TOK (following along some students doing the IB), visible learning… The list goes on.



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