On Scaffolding

When the curriculum is organized around problems and complex tasks, it is inevitable that students will encounter situations that challenge their current knowledge. There will be ideas they do not yet understand, tasks they cannot complete with competence, and resources they cannot comprehend, and tools they are unable to use. It can be reasoned that students who do not encounter such situations are not really learning. When students have developed their metacognitive skills, they will be able to recognize many of these situations themselves. When the curriculum is organized around interesting and relevant problems—it is reasoned—the students will both identify the gaps in their knowledge and be motivated to learn what is necessary to fill the gaps. Attentive instructors are also likely to anticipate situations in which the curriculum is beyond the immediate grasp of the learners. Deeper learning has been presented as a multidimensional phenomenon; Tabak and Kyza (2018) confirm that scaffolding can support learners’ cognitive development, their metacognitive development, and their affective development.  

The strategies teachers include in their course design and delivery that are intended to support learners as they work through the challenges of the curriculum. Reiser and Tabak (2014) noted “A central idea in scaffolding is that the work is shared between the learner and some more knowledgeable other or agent” (p. 45), and through his shared cognition, new knowledge is developed. The idea of the work being shared between the learner and some other “thing” seems contrary the concept of learning for many who encounter scaffolding in teaching for the first time. The metaphor of scaffolding used in construction projects helps those individual to understand the nature of scaffolding in teaching. Just as construction scaffolding is a temporary structure that aids in the completion of the building and it is removed when no longer necessary, educational scaffolding is temporary; it is removed when it is no longer needed.  

Scaffolds are strategies included in teaching that are faded. As students gain experience and competence with the curriculum, they reduce their reliance on scaffolds, until—eventually—they are not needed. The fading characteristics can be used to differentiate scaffolds from other cognitive tools. Consider the example of a checklist. When learning complex and multi-steps procedures or activities, checklist can help students remember the order of steps and can help them check for important aspects of the systems they are using. If the checklist become less necessary, and students refer to it less frequently, but they continue to perform well, then the checklist has served as a scaffold. Other checklists, such as the pre-flight checklists are never abandoned regardless of the expertise of the pilots. Those checklists are tools that are used to perform the task of flying the plane safely. These are quality control instruments rather than scaffolds. 


Reiser, B., & Tabak, I. (2014). Scaffolding. In R K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Learning Science (2nd ed.), (pp. 44-62). Cambridge University Press.  

Tabek, I., & Kyza, E. (2018). Research on scaffolding: A methodological perspective. In F. Fischer, C. Hmelo-Siver, S. Goldmand, P. Reimann (eds.). International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 191-200). Routledge.