Scaffolding in construction projects provides the necessary support structure to enable the carpenters and other crew members to do their work. In building a skyscraper or even working up high on a home, these scaffolds are absolutely essential. When these supports are no longer required, they are gradually removed.
Learning scaffolds function in much the same way. They provide the necessary guidance and support that students need when they are new to a concept, procedure, or skill. When they are no longer necessary to enable students to be successful, they are removed so that students can function independently.
Common Learning Scaffolds
If you think back to English class in middle school, I’ll bet you remember being introduced to the “five paragraph essay.” This format consists of an introductory paragraph with an assertion, three supporting paragraphs with some form of evidence, and a summary concluding paragraph. This relatively simple approach to helping students to structure an evidence-based argument is a very concrete, albeit simplistic, way to help students develop the habits of mind for argument structure. Once students have some practice with this approach, the teacher removes this structure and encourages students to develop more sophisticated and creative approaches to convey their ideas.
And who can forget the classic atomic structure diagram with electrons orbiting neatly around the nucleus in a perfect circle? We later learned that the structure of an atom is much more complex and messy than this simple diagram reflects. However, these more sophisticated understandings are built with the help of this initial, more simplistic way of understanding the concept.
One interesting contribution by Tom Brush and John Saye exploring learning scaffolds in historical inquiry through computer based simulations is the categorization into hard and soft scaffolds (Brush & Saye, 2002). They define the two types of scaffolds in this way (p. 2):
- Hard scaffolds are static supports that can be anticipated and planned in advance based upon typical student difficulties with a task.
- Soft scaffolds are dynamic, situation-specific aids provided by a teacher or peer to help with the learning process
The two examples I offered above (i.e. five paragraph essay and atomic diagram) are what Brush & Saye would describe as hard scaffolds. They are built around an understanding of how students struggle with a particular concept or process and are designed to help the students overcome these obstacles. Other examples of hard scaffolds are pre-created concept maps that students complete, specific strategies to solve problems or work through an experiment, and structured case studies that walk students through the process.
Soft scaffolds come more in the form of “just-in-time” support during a learning experience. For example, when we see that a class discussion is headed off the rails or students seem to be developing misconceptions related to the topic, we can redirect the conversation through a carefully formed question or simply reframe an idea. This can happen in an online discussion board in much the same way. To effectively facilitate a discussion online, we need to be “present” and interject strategically into the conversation when necessary. I have also stopped a class working in groups when I see multiple examples of questions or misunderstandings for a brief discussion or demonstration to get them back on track. These are not often issues you can anticipate, but these soft scaffolds can help to save the day in many instances.
How to Determine the Appropriate Scaffolds
Whenever I’m teaching a topic or concept that I know or suspect might be challenging for students, I try to anticipate the trouble points. These can also be identified based on prior experience in teaching the same topic. In these cases, I work to develop some form of hard scaffold in advance that I may or may not choose to use in the class session, depending on how things unfold. It’s comforting to know, though, that I have a support planned out in case I need it. In other cases, I implement the hard scaffold from the outset. In either case, I try to determine the minimum level of support needed and try to remove it as quickly as I can to help students develop independence in their learning.
Soft scaffolds can be more tricky. If you’re like me, it can be difficult to think on your feet – particularly when a carefully designed lesson seems to be faltering. I do my best in these instances to redirect students, particularly drawing on past experience when it’s relevant. My other strategy is to “unpack” the class session afterwards and make notes on any challenges I encountered. As best I can, I then reflect on the experience to learn from the challenge so that I can better anticipate the need for a hard or soft scaffold in subsequent class sessions.
The reality is that teaching and learning is challenging stuff. Where we can anticipate challenges and put scaffolds in place, we should do so. Where we can’t, we try to adjust on the fly. In all cases, we should strive to be reflective and learn from our experience to grow as teachers.
What kind of scaffolds do you find effective?
Please post your comments below.