In the building trades, scaffolds help workers reach high places. A scaffold is like a ladder, but safer. A set of scaffolds is “scaffolding.” It supports the workers, so the job gets done safer and better.

In the world of education, scaffolding also provides support. But in this case, it provides support for the learner.

With construction, the worker needs only so much support. Even without a ladder or scaffold, a painter can often coat a ceiling in paint. Perhaps the painter puts a roller on the end of a long pole. But the pole is also a kind of “scaffold” because it, too, helps with the painting. But it provides scaffolding of a less intensive type. Of course, if the ceiling is very high, the painter will need a ladder or actual set of scaffolds—a more intensive type of scaffolding.

So too in education: for some students a learning target might be relatively easy to reach. Scaffolding can be less intensive. For others, the scaffolding will need to be more intensive. In other words, in all classrooms, the students will need variable amounts of support. But all students need some sort of scaffolding—and they deserve it.

With instruction, the idea behind scaffolding is to provide just as much support as a student needs—and no more. And the aim is to remove supports when the student no longer needs them.

In math, for example, some students benefit from using a number line to help with calculations; others benefit from a calculator; others from manipulatives such as learning blocks or Cuisenaire rods. But once the student begins to acquire number sense, he or she doesn’t need these supports. They can gradually be removed. The student moves onto new material. And, it’s no surprise, more, possibly different scaffolding will be needed.

Many of the strategies presented in this module are scaffolds of different types. So in this unit, we won’t spend too much time on specific scaffolds. Instead, we’ll talk more about how to use scaffolds—for instance, when to use one and when to remove it. We’ll talk about how to make scaffolds available but not mandatory. And we’ll talk about how to teach students strategies for scaffolding their own learning.

Understanding these principles depends on more specifics. So, the chart below lists scaffolds of various types. You’ll see some things—like providing a calculator—that are so common you may not realize they are scaffolds. And you’ll see other things—like study guides and number lines—you recognize as scaffolds and see all the time. Some of the scaffolds on the list might be new to you—like flow charts and talking word processors (also known as text to speech apps).

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