In the world of construction, a scaffold is a raised platform or series of platforms on top of one another, enabling workers to reach high places on buildings—like a ladder but more secure. A set of scaffolds is called scaffolding. Scaffolding supports the worker.
In the world of education, scaffolding also provides support. But in this case, it’s 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. Just like we use the word “scaffolding” in education to talk about more and less intensive types of support, the support provided by the long pole is also scaffolding. And it’s 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, while for others that same learning target will be more difficult to reach. In any classroom we will have some students who need more support and others who need less. In other words, the students will need variable amounts of support.
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, supports such as these can gradually be removed.
Many of the strategies presented throughout 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: when to incorporate a scaffold and when to remove it, how to make scaffolds available but not mandatory, and how to teach students strategies for scaffolding their own learning.
Nevertheless, knowing the range of educational scaffolds out there is very helpful. So, the chart below lists scaffolds of various types. You’ll see some things that are so natural one might not have considered them “scaffolds,” such as providing a calculator or asking questions that guide students to an idea or process they are struggling to understand.