Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scaffolding & Teaching (and Learning)

by Susan Codone

Scaffolding is an instructional concept that is often attempted and often misunderstood.  In preparation for this blog posting, I read many articles about scaffolding, most with the word scaffolding in the title.  At least four articles did not offer any definition of scaffolding, describe its origin in Vygotskian thought, or provide any examples of real scaffolding strategies, providing instead broad instructional events like "assignments" or "homework" as efforts that scaffold learning.

Defining Scaffolding
Let's start with some definitions so that we can place scaffolding in the right context.  In Scaffolding Emergent Writing in the Zone of Proximal Development (Literacy Teaching and Learning, 1998), Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong write that Jerome Bruner first wrote about scaffolding in the 1950's.  Rooted in Vygotskian thought (but never discussed by Vygostsky), Bruner defined it as the expert support provided by an instructor to facilitate the learner's transition from assisted to independent performance.  Bruner said that the scaffolds provided by the instructor don't make the task itself easier, but they make it possible for the learner to complete the task without support. 

Wikipedia's entry on instructional scaffolding describes it as representing the helpful interactions between the teacher and learner that enable the learner to do something beyond his or her independent efforts. The crucial characteristic of scaffolding that many people miss is that a scaffold is only a temporary framework that is put up for support and is taken away when the learner gains control of a task.  In An Approach to Reducing Cognitive Load in the Teaching of Introductory Database Concepts (Journal of Information Systems Education, 2010), John Bunch defines scaffolding as something that presents performance support as needed to achieve a goal, and then fades it away as the learner is able to achieve the goal independently.

Types of Scaffolding
There are two types of scaffolding identified in the literature -- hard and soft.  Brian Belland, Krista Glazewski, and Jennifer Richardson (A Scaffolding Framework to Support the Construction of Evidence-Based Arguments Among Middle School Students-- Education, Technology, Research and Development, 2008) define soft scaffolding as just-in-time support provided by a teacher or peer that helps students meaningfully participate in the performance of learning actions.  They define hard scaffolding as technology or paper-based tools that are based on anticipated student needs -- like videos of experts, computer-based help, etc; hard scaffolding is meant to augment soft scaffolding.

Scaffolding Strategies
The strategies used to scaffold learners are the heart of the theory and are how teachers can bring learners along to independent practice.  Many instructional strategies can be used as scaffolding as long as the teacher uses them to gradually bring learners along and then fades out their use as learners gain independence.  In Scaffolding Collaborative Exchange Between Expert and Novice Language Teachers in Threaded Discussion (Foreign Language Annals, 2009), Lina Lee discusses the use of social dialogue and critical reflection in threaded discussion as scaffolding techniques, saying that expert dialogue and feedback with learners offers expert assistance, reduces learner frustration, and increases motivation and cognitive growth.  Instructional strategies like these can be applied carefully as scaffolds to increase independent learning.

Other strategies for scaffolding include:

1. Strategies to solve novel problems
2. Development of mental models that generate multiple representations and visualizations
3. Problem solving strategies with specific steps learners can follow
4. Writing guidelines that serve as a formula for composition
5. Websites that offer additional information for learners trying to solve problems or generate written answers
6. Heuristics offering a framework for completing work

7. In math, using partially worked out examples that students complete with help
8. In literature, using guided role play and reenactments as connections with a story
9. In problem-based learning, using Socratic dialogue and metacognitive coaching to help learners question their understanding
10. In science, using expert modeling, question prompts, concept mapping, evidence gathering, helping questions

Done well, scaffolding and its gradual withdrawal can help promote cognitive growth and transfer of learning.  It can help students learn complex tasks and internalize procedures for solving problems.  Belland, Glazewski, and Richardson say that scaffolding should be systemic, motivating, and tailored to the ability of students.  Making the scaffolding explicit for students helps this process as well -- they should know they are being given support and should know when it is taken away.  Overall, scaffolding is an excellent strategy for structuring learning and making learners independent -- as long as it is done well and competently.

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