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Most educational professionals will use the term ‘scaffold’ when describing how their teaching strategies support children’s learning. But what is scaffolding in education, why is it such a popular teaching methodology for all levels of schooling, and what is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Introduction to Scaffolding in Education

scaffolding in education
Teachers can scaffold student learning by providing intentional support to help them learn

Within conversations about education, it is not uncommon to hear terms that include the word ‘scaffolding’. Scaffolding learning, scaffolding teaching, instructional scaffolding – these are just a few of the phrases that incorporate this educational term. Whilst teachers and educators might have a strong grasp on what it means to scaffold learning, there are many out there who are confused by how the term scaffolding relates to education. Whilst on the outset it might appear as unnecessary technical jargon, the concept of scaffolding in education is certainly an important one to know and understand for educators and parents alike.

What is scaffolding in education?

The term scaffolding refers to a popular and widely-used teaching approach. When we think of a scaffold, we visualize a supportive structure that helps builders climb to greater heights. A scaffolding might be low to the ground or way up high in the air – always providing just the right amount of height and support for the workers to complete their task.  In education, scaffolding works in much the same way as this. Teachers scaffold student learning by providing intentional supports that help their students achieve a greater level of mastery than they would without that support being in place. Scaffolding is considered a vital element of effective intentional teaching and all teachers – from early childhood to tertiary education – use various kinds of instructional scaffolding within their teaching.

What is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development?

In the 1930’s a Soviet psychologist by the name of Lev Vygotsky developed the concept of a zone of proximal development (ZPD). In simple terms, the zone of proximal development relates to the gap between what a child is able to accomplish on their own and what they can accomplish with a bit of help. Vygotsky himself defined the concept as:

“the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

The term ‘proximal’ is used because it refers to the skills that a child or student is close to mastering. You can learn more about Lev Vygotsky’s ideas around the zone of proximal development

What is the relationship between the Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding?

The concept of scaffolding relates very strongly to the zone of proximal development. When a teacher scaffolds learning effectively, they will be helping students to bridge the gap between what they currently know and what they need to know. Scaffolding works to support students within their zone of proximal development so that they can develop new skills that would be outside of their reach without the right instruction and support.

How does Scaffolding help students?

By supporting a student or child to work within their zone of proximal development, teachers are allowing students to share in the responsibility of teaching and learning. Through this process, students are free to ask questions, provide feedback and help their peers in their learning. A teacher who scaffolds learning works as a mentor – guiding and working alongside students. In contrast, a teacher who does not scaffold often places themselves as the ‘expert’ who is dominant in the process of trying to impart their knowledge onto students. We know that this approach is far less effective at engaging students and often leads to poorer learning outcomes than a scaffolding approach.

scaffolding in education
Scaffolding can help students to master skills faster

Whilst a teacher is often the person scaffolding learning, the concept really just involves the presence of a more knowledgeable person to help move the student’s zone of proximal development forward. This person can help the student to build on what they already know and master new skills. With this in mind, scaffolding can occur with a peer, a group of peers or through the utilization of educational technology or artifacts to nudge the student along in terms of their learning.

An important aspect of the scaffolding approach is that the support that is given is considered a temporary necessity and as the student or child progresses, some of the support is removed until the child reaches greater independence within that aspect of their learning. The ultimate goal is to allow the child or student to achieve that independence through a supportive process of learning.

What is the Benefit of Scaffolding?

There are very good reasons why scaffolding is such a widely-used and effective teaching approach. Just some of the benefits of this method include:

·      Boosting student understandings

·      Helping to differentiate learning by providing different levels of scaffolding depending on where students are at with their learning.

·      Allowing students to master skills faster

·      Students stay engaged longer and feel supported in their learning

·      Allowing the teacher to have strong insight into student progress so they can adapt the scaffolding as needed.

·      Promoting independent learning from an early age

·      Allowing strong opportunities for collaborative learning

·      Increasing the amount of time that students are able to stay on task.

One very important benefit of scaffolding is that it helps students to feel supported through tasks that are difficult. Instead of feeling negative emotions and becoming frustrated or discouraged by a task, a child or student can be helped to success which will then boost their sense of self-esteem. You can learn more about the benefits of scaffolding learning here:

scaffolding in education
Scaffolding doesn’t have to occur with an adult, it can be a more knowledgeable peer, or a sibling

How do teachers scaffold children’s learning?

In order to support a child or student to move through the zone of proximal development, educators can focus on several strategies that help in the process of learning. Firstly, having someone there who is more knowledgeable than the learner is a crucial aspect of the scaffolding process. This doesn’t always need to be a teacher as often peers are very well equipped to support and scaffold learning. Secondly, it is the interactions that occur between the tutor and the learner that will help the student to grow their skills. Finally, careful consideration of the supportive activities that are provided by the educator will help the learner move through the zone of proximal development. The scaffolding process involves sensory, graphic and interactive engagement to ‘boost’ the learner to achieve at a higher level than they could by themselves.

scaffolding in education
It is mostly the interactions between student and scaffolder that can help the student grow their skills

Whilst there are a great many ways that scaffolding can occur, here are 6 strategies that teachers can use to scaffold children’s learning for school age children:


Summary of Scaffolding in Education

The scaffolding approach is a supportive and positive methodology that has been proven highly effective in education. By challenging learners to work within their zone of proximal development, educators are able to guide students in their learning and help them to be successful. The methodology allows for positive attitudes towards learning and grows lifelong, independent learners – just what we need for our future change-makers of the world.