Q: What is scaffolding?

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A: Scaffolding is a term used in both construction and in education. One of my heroes, Jerome Bruner, an amazing educator, coined the term for educators. 

Let’s think first about what scaffolding’s use in construction is. It’s a temporary structure put up around a building to make it safe for anyone working on it.

So what does it have to do with learning? When children are learning something new, teacher and parents support the children’s learning. The adult uses different strategies to support the children until they don’t need it anymore. Like scaffolding in construction, scaffolding in learning is temporary. Responsibility for learning is gradually shifted to the children.

Teachers and parents start at a level that’s just slightly out of the children’s current understanding. It’s just outside the child’s comfort zone – a bit of a stretch but nothing too scary or uncomfortable.  

Scaffolding, as a teaching tool. is great because it’s positive. Adults meet the children ‘where they are’ in learning, using questions and examples to lead them into understanding. 

Adults who scaffold ask lots of questions. They step back and get the children to do their own thinking. Scaffolding adults don’t just give out answers – the process of learning is more than whether the answer is right of wrong. Questions are usually “how” and “why” – “How could we find out?”, “Why do you think this goes here?”, “How did you know that?” By asking these higher level questions, children are encouraged to think on their own and find solutions to any problem. 

Ways you can help?

There are a number of things you can do to become a ‘learning scaffolder’. 

1. Start where the child is comfortable in their learning – what they already know and can do. Begin gently pushing away from it. Introduce new ideas. Tell and show how it’s connected to other things they already know.

2. Ask questions and give hints, not answers. Questions and hints can point children in the right direction to figure things out on their own.

3. Wait for children to think. Be ready to support them with hints and questions. Don’t feel like you have to rescue them or do a lot of talking. Give them time to think and to work things out. Be patient and supportive – “I’ll let you use your good brain. I know you have great ideas.”

4. If children don’t come up with an idea or solution even after you hinted and waited, give them some possible answers. Let them choose one they think is best.

5. Be positive about any answers children provide. If you don’t understand, tell them so – “I know you’ve got great ideas but you’re gonna have to help me understand this one.” If the idea seems like it’s completely unconnected to what you’re doing, ask – “Can you help me understand this better? We were talking about ……” If you ask enough questions and get the child to show you, often you’ll discover a connection you hadn’t thought of. But, if you can’t find a connection, use the child’s answer as an indication you need to explain things in different ways – it’s back to the drawing board. 

I found the concept of scaffolding quite confusing when I first came across it. Read the information above a few times. Then watch the video below. You’ll see how the teachers in the video are positive and gentle with the children. Also, you’ll notice how they aren’t focused on getting a ‘right’ answer. They guide the children into better understanding, not just correct answers.

Scaffolding takes time and patience. But learning will be more solid and full of joy.

Photo by Chris Gray on Unsplash

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