Why We Scaffold

Scaffolding is the term used to decribe a particular type of support for learners that are built into the lesson. Exactly what kinds of support is provided depends on the nature of the curriculum and task within the curriculum as well as the intent of the lessons. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) observed scaffolds are an essential part of the tutoring process that separates learning by observation from the directed and purposeful teaching and learning that has been central to human culture. They further documented several different types of support that arises from scaffolding. To be effective, however, they found scaffolds must be used in situations in which the learner has a sense of the entire task or solution they seek. Scaffolds have little effect when skills are being taught in isolation. 

One type of support scaffolds can provide is in focusing the attention of the learner. Focus can be achieved by reducing the number of tasks or subtasks for which the learner in responsible or that the learner is trying to master. Focus can also point learners to essential features of the task or activity. Especially when first faced with complex tasks or problems, the learner may be unable to differentiate essential aspects of it from complicating variables. A scaffold that points learners to the essential aspects provides valuable support. Demonstrations of the entire task or solution represent an idealized realization of the solution. 

Social scaffolding can take several forms in classrooms. Interaction between the student and the teacher through coaching, guidance, questions, clarification, answers, and other dialogue are examples. Similar interactions between peers are also understood to provide social scaffolding. For the interaction to be scaffolding, it must be a dialogue with questions and answers arising from both the mentors and the learners in the interaction. Interaction in which the mentor is dispensing correct answers or otherwise rewarding or punishing actions in a manner consistent with behaviorism is not considered to be scaffolding. The value of such feedback in some instructional situations is recognized, but that type of interaction is not scaffolding.  

When designing social scaffolding that relies on peers to provide support, many instructors express concern that “they will learn the incorrect information.” While this concern is grounded in the belief that teaching is about telling students information, the general concern of students being inefficient or misguided in the support they provide to peers is valid. Cress and Kimmerle (2018) recommended instructors define procedures and methods “explicit social rules or implicit affordances that guide a member’s attention to the activities going on in the group” (p. 140).  

In addition to social scaffolding, scholars and educators have designed a range of strategies and tools that scaffold learning through supporting students thinking and managing their own cognitive load. Reiser and Tabak (2014) concluded cognitive scaffolds support learning of complex tasks and concepts by focus learners’ attention on the essential aspects of the problem. This can be effective throughout the learning cognitive scaffolds can guide studies and they can help students understand the outputs of their work. For example, a flow chart might scaffold the work of conducting a scientific experiment and a rubric might scaffold the students’ preparation of the reports of their experiment.  

One of the challenges that faces those who are new to a field of study and who are studying complex problems is a lack of understanding of how to begin to frame, understand, and approach solving a problem. Scaffolds can help students focus their work, thus reducing the frustration of false starts. Cognitive scaffolding is further useful when teachers are facilitating metacognition. As learners are building expertise, they may lack the ability to compare their existing knowledge with the knowledge necessary for solving a particular problem.   


Cress, U., & Kimmerle, J. (2018). Collective knowledge construction. In F. Fischer, C. Hmelo-Siver, S. Goldmand, P. Reimann (eds.). International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 137-146). Routledge.

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.

Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17(2), 89-100.