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Everything You Need to Know about Scaffolding in Education

Maria Kampen

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A few years ago, I bought a beautiful piece of living room furniture from a big-box store. A statement piece that would’ve tied everything together. The only problem was, it came without instructions.

Ever tried building something without proper, effective guidance? It can feel impossible, intimidating, overwhelming or simply not worth doing.

Introducing a new math concept can fill your students with those exact feelings — which is why scaffolding in education is so important.

What is scaffolding in education?

Young child plays with building blocks in the classroom.

In education, scaffolding is an instructional method teachers use to show students how to solve problems, offering support as they need it.

Imagine a construction crew building a house.

The crew uses scaffolding to help support them and their materials. As the crew completes sections of the house and no longer needs support, they remove the scaffolds.

Like a construction crew, you can use scaffolding in education to help support students as they learn new concepts.

Then, as your students internalize information and show signs of understanding, you gradually remove the scaffolds to enable independent learning.

The types of scaffolding you use in your classroom will look different based on your goals, lesson and students. Generally, scaffolding supports fall into three categories:

  1. Sensory — Use physical and visual elements, manipulatives and visual aids together. Sensory scaffolding also includes modeling in front of the class, since images and gestures help paint a whole picture of the lesson.
  2. Graphic — Mind maps, graphic organizers and anchor charts are classroom staples, but they can also help students draw relationships between abstract concepts. Guide students through how to read them for maximum effectiveness.
  3. Interactive — Collaborative learning is an important part of the classroom, whether it’s between teachers and students or among students. Strategies like “think-pair-share” and jigsaw groups (where small groups are responsible for learning and teaching part of the lesson) are tried-and-true methods for effective collaboration.

According to one study, using a range of different supports in your instruction can help students, especially English language learners, effectively engage with grade-level objectives and content.

Scaffolding and the zone of proximal development

Male teacher in front of students sitting in wooden desks in the classroom.

Scaffolding in education is built on the idea of a zone of proximal development, first theorized about in the 1930s by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

The zone of proximal development (ZDP) is the distance between what students can accomplish on their own and what they need help with. For one student, this could be the difference between mastering two-digit multiplication and struggling with multiplying decimals.

The presence of a more knowledgeable other, usually a teacher, is a key element of scaffolding and helps students move the zone of proximal development. They help students develop new skills, using scaffolding techniques to build on what students have already mastered.

Scaffolding helps students bridge the gap between what they know and what they need to know, supports them as they develop new skills and breaks down unfamiliar skills into smaller, easily accessible ideas.

But a more knowledgeable other doesn’t have to just be a teacher! It could also be:

  • A peer
  • A group of peers
  • Learning artifacts
  • Educational technology

Examples of scaffolding in education

Let’s walk through a practical example of what scaffolding could look like in your classroom. 

1. Build on prior knowledge

Young girls sits at a table with teachers, writing in a notebook and looking at writing supplies on the table.

Let’s say you’re introducing your students to long division.

Obviously, you can’t start scaffolding until you understand what students already know. You need to understand what concepts they’ve mastered and where they still need practice. 

You might have this data from previous units or past teachers. But you might not have all the data — especially this year, considering student learning loss from COVID-19-related school closures. 

There are a few ways you can identify learning gaps and activate prior knowledge:

  • Mini-lessons
  • Journal entries
  • Vocabulary lesson
  • Entry or exit tickets
  • Front-loading vocab
  • Quick class discussion

If you discover your students have mastered place value but still have trouble remembering some of their division facts, that’s where you need to start. 

Instead of jumping straight into long division problems right away, build on their understanding of division skills first. This helps you build a solid foundation for the rest of your unit!

2. Present the problem and think out loud

Teacher stands at whiteboard and points with marker at red writing.

Once you’re sure students understand prerequisites like division facts, vocab and place value, it’s time to move on.

Modeling problems is a key part of effective scaffolding. Using actions, images and language, walk your students through a basic long division problem, demonstrating your thought process. 

While you solve the problem, explain in clear, easy-to-understand terms what you’re doing and why. Look for verbal and nonverbal cues that students are engaged and understand.

As you model the problem, use different strategies to connect with students in multiple ways:

  • Mind maps
  • Flow charts
  • Math games
  • Vocab lessons
  • Modeling steps
  • Hands-on practice
  • Graphic organizers
  • Example of an assignment or a rubric
  • Read-alouds, for language arts-related concepts

Use whichever methods make the most sense for your unit — math games can help you teach long division, but read-alouds are more effective when it comes to modeling reading comprehension strategies.

3. Repeat as necessary

Teacher sits at table with students as the small group works on creating a mind map in the classroom.

Continue to reinforce the concept, using a variety of different entry points to increase student understanding. As you go, check in with your students using:

  • Turn and talk — Have students discuss the lesson or a key concept with their neighbor.
  • Small group discussion — Have students discuss an open-ended, guiding question in small groups.
  • The pause method — Briefly pause and ask students a strategic, guiding and open-ended question to further their understanding.
  • Think-pair-share — Give students a question to think about on their own, then with a partner. Once they’re done, ask them to share their answers and reasoning with the class.
  • “Red, yellow, green” check-in — Give each student a red, yellow and green card. At key points in the lesson, ask them to hold up the card that reflects their understanding (green for good, yellow for getting there and red for confused).

You know your class best, so look for verbal and non-verbal cues they’re understanding the lesson. 

4. Encourage participation

Teacher standing in a classroom in front of a blackboard, pointing at a student who is raising their hand.

Encourage class participation, and provide positive reinforcement for right and wrong answers. 

Eventually, ask more students to participate and provide correction as needed. Use collaborative learning strategies to help students strengthen their skills and learn alongside their peers. 

Get the whole class involved using the fishbowl method! Put a question up on the board, then invite students up to solve the problem. As a class, discuss how they reached the answer and the methods they used.  

Other virtual and in-person participation strategies include:

  • Wait time — Instead of immediately providing students with the answer after asking a question, pause and wait. The silence might feel uncomfortable at first, but students will eventually start to participate.
  • Online forums — For asynchronous teaching strategies, use online forums to encourage discussions. Students can ask questions, answer their peers’ questions and discuss concepts.
  • Use video call tools to answer questions — If you’re teaching remotely, use the chat function in a video lesson to encourage students to ask and answer questions or respond with emojis that indicate their level of understanding.
  • Make sure students are participating equally — It might seem obvious, but making sure students aren’t talking too much (or too little) is an important part of teaching for all students — whether you’re teaching remotely or in person. 

Gradually ask more students to participate, and use their answers to gauge their understanding. Provide correction as needed, but be sure to lean on positive reinforcement strategies.

5. Check understanding again

Young boy sits at a table with other students in the classroom, looking at a magazine and making notes.

Walk through problems with students again, checking for understanding and modeling as needed. At this point, students should be able to work independently to answer questions and demonstrate skills. 

Gradually move away from techniques like modeling in favor of independent work and in-depth discussions. One common method is “I do, we do, you do.”

  • I do — Start with direct instruction, and check in on student understanding frequently. You did this back in steps 2 and 3!
  • We do — Work with the whole class, small groups or individual students to discuss the lesson and complete activities like graphic organizers and hands-on practice.
  • You do — Once students are comfortable with the concept, have them participate in small group instruction and complete practice work on their own.

6. Ensure students can demonstrate knowledge

Three students stand at a blackboard and draw a flowchart.

Eventually, students should be able to demonstrate a solid understanding of the lesson, while you jump in and offer support as needed. 

This is one of the trickier parts of scaffolding — let go too soon and students might struggle more than they need to, but continue modeling too long and risk students getting bored.

It might be harder to tell the first few times, but eventually you’ll develop a solid understanding of your students’ learning process and find the sweet spot for letting go. 

Scaffolding looks different in every classroom, depending on the lesson, your students’ knowledge and the resources available to you. You know your class best, so adapt as necessary!

How Prodigy Math Game helps you scaffold your lessons

Scaffolding in education can be time-consuming, and it’s not always easy to tell exactly where your students are in the learning process — especially if they’re learning remotely.  

Prodigy Math Game can help!

Prodigy Math Game’s adaptive algorithm automatically keeps learners in their zone of proximal development, encouraging students to tackle new problems without overwhelming or frustrating them. 

And with powerful teacher tools, you’ll be able to align the questions students see as they play.

Use Assignments as a diagnostic tool to see where students need scaffolding

Assignments quiz students on a set of skills with a fixed number of questions. Think about it like a pop quiz, except students have no idea they’re being assessed — it’s all part of the adventure!

Screenshot of Prodigy Math Game's Assessments tool, with Plans selected.

Use Assignments to diagnose trouble spots and make decisions about scaffolding and re-teaching. Here’s how:

  1. Log in at www.prodigygame.com and select the classroom you want to create an Assignment for.
  2. At the top of your screen, click Create and select Assignment.
  3. Choose the curriculum-aligned domains and standards you want your students to practice.
  4. Click Next to see the number of questions in your Assignment. Click Next again to send the Assignment to the whole class, a small group or individual students. 
  5. Click Next a final time to set the dates when the Assignment will appear in-game for students. 
  6. Get students playing!
  7. To view the results of the Assignment, go to your Assessments tool and click on the Assignment. Select View Report to see student results and make decisions about scaffolding. 

Assignments can be used to understand prior knowledge at the start of the lesson, or after scaffolding activities to understand student progress.

“Once a skill has been taught, I have students constantly reviewing the skills they know by completing quizzes I assign [in Prodigy]. When it’s time to take the standardized test at the end of the year, they’ve already been reviewing everything. They actually remember what was taught in September!” - Karina C., 5th grade teacher, Florida

Assign a Plan to give students more support within a particular standard

Screenshot of Prodigy Math Game's plan selection screen.

Plans guide students through skills and standards at their own pace, dropping them down to pre-requisites as necessary to build foundational skills. 

Use them to give students guided, adaptive math practice throughout your lesson — then check back to see which skills they’ve mastered and where they need more instruction. 

Here’s how:

  1. Log in at www.prodigygame.com and select the classroom you want to make a Plan for.
  2. At the top of your screen, click Create and select PlansPlans.
  3. Select the grade, domain and expectation for your Plan that aligns with your unit.
  4. Choose the days your Plan will run. Plans can run from one to 30 days, so assign it to match your teaching schedule
  5. Have students play Prodigy Math Game! Schedule playing time as part of a station rotation setup, entry and exit tickets or a free time activity. You’ll get real-time data while students are playing at home or at school.
  6. To see how students performed on your Plan, go to your Assessments tool and click on the Plan. Select View Report to see student results, determine trouble spots and make scaffolding decisions.

Use Plans to activate prior knowledge at the beginning of a unit or lesson, or to provide students with skill-building practice after modelling key concepts. 

“I have had a student who struggled with understanding story problems. With the way Prodigy scaffolds story problems, the student learned how to write out equations without supports. It was amazing to see such generalization of skills.” - Bonnie Z., 6th-8th grade teacher, Indiana

At Prodigy, we’re committed to supporting teachers around the world with powerful teaching tools. That’s why Prodigy is free for you and your students.

Sign up today

Benefits of scaffolding in education

Female teacher points at charts on the wall while two other women take notes beside her.

Scaffolding can be a lot of work. So what’s the point? Let’s run through some of the benefits of scaffolding — for you and your students.

Boosts student understanding

When students are given more entry points into the lesson and your instruction deliberately develops independent skills, they’re more likely to achieve skill mastery.

Helps differentiate instruction

Scaffolding and differentiation aren’t the same thing, but you can use differentiation techniques to give students different levels of scaffolding depending on where they are in their understanding. 

Increases time on task

Students spend more time practicing key skills in class, instead of zoning out when it gets too easy or giving up because it’s too difficult. 

Builds learning momentum

When students master key skills faster with scaffolding, the benefits add up! You’ll be able to move on to new concepts knowing all students have achieved mastery and are adding new skills with ease.

It’s engaging

Students stay engaged with the learning process when they feel included and supported. Scaffolding gives them the confidence to gradually take on more independent work without losing focus, getting frustrated or becoming bored. 

Gives teacher insights into student progress

The very nature of scaffolding means you have to continually check for understanding and respond to changing student needs. You’re already tuned in to how your class is learning, but the process of scaffolding can give you new insights. 

Promotes independent learning 

Scaffolding gradually removes support in the classroom so students can build effective independent learning skills. Independent learning is a lifelong skill, and modeling its importance can reinforce it from an early stage.

Fosters collaborative learning 

Scaffolding is all about learning in collaboration with a teacher and with classmates. Students can work in groups to develop skills or collaborate with peers on a final project.

Final thoughts on scaffolding in education

Scaffolding, like everything else, takes practice to get right. But over time, you’ll understand what it looks like when your class is ready to move on to the next level — and you’ll start to see the benefits!

As two researchers in the 1980’s noted when expanding on the practice of scaffolding:

“One does not simply learn to read and write: one learns to read and write about particular things in particular ways.” - Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer

Being intentional about how you teach your students will almost always result in learning gains. It’s up to you to find the ways that work best for your students!

Let Prodigy help you scaffold effectively

Prodigy Math Game is an adaptive learning platform loved by more than 90 million educators, students and parents. Join today and watch your students love learning math. Prodigy Math Game is free for teachers, always!

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