What is scaffolding?

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Scaffolding is the latest buzzword in education community. In an international conference I attended recently for instance, I heard the word wall the parallel paper presentations.

There was a demonstration lesson for teaching English during the conference. I am not an English teacher so I asked the person seated beside me, who happens to be an English teacher, to tell me what the teacher was doing as she hopped from one group of students to the other. She said with authority that the teacher was doing a lot of scaffolding. I didn’t know what to make of her statement. Was it a positive or a negative comment? Is it a good idea to do a lot of scaffolding or is it something that should be given sparingly? Where do you draw the line?

Scaffolding is a metaphor for describing a type of facilitating a teacher does to support students learning. Some educational paper in fact lists some of these scaffolding like “breaking the task into smaller, more manageable parts; using ‘think alouds’, or verbalizing thinking processes when completing a task; cooperative learning, which promotes teamwork and dialogue among peers; concrete prompts, questioning; coaching; cue cards or modeling.”

Scaffolding can be traced back to Lev Vygotsky’s idea of ZONE of PROXIMAL DEVELOPMENT (ZPD). Vygotsky suggests that there are two parts of learner’s developmental level: 1) the Actual developmental level 2) the Potential developmental level

The ZPD is “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”. This is where scaffolding is crucial.


Note that the activity students should be engaging in is problem solving. A problem is a problem only when you do not how to solve it right away. So when scaffolding deprives the students from thinking and working on their own way of solving the problem then scaffolding has not helped learn how to solve problem. It only helped them to solve problems using the teacher’s method.

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