Imagine two classroom scenarios. In the first scenario, a teacher gives a 15-minute lecture on multiplying fractions and then, without asking if they have questions, gives students a worksheet to complete. In the second scenario, a different teacher introduces the same topic by reviewing relevant vocabulary, using visual aids, and leaving plenty of time for questions and discussion.
In the first scenario, the teacher essentially leaves the students to fend for themselves. It’s like handing a novice skydiver a parachute and telling them the instructions are on the back right before their first jump. The second and preferable method is an example of scaffolding--the act of supporting students with different techniques and resources.
Scaffolding can require more planning, more real-time observation and assessment, and more flexibility than traditional approaches. And during the pandemic, it has been even more difficult to scaffold learning. While learning loss was with us long before the pandemic, this year students have lost anywhere from a few months to years of learning. Scaffolding is one of many solutions to this perennial problem, both now and going forward. And yes, it can be done in both the virtual and physical classroom.
How can scaffolding mitigate learning loss?
Scaffolding can be a profoundly effective tool to mitigate learning loss. One of the immediate benefits is that it simplifies complex ideas and eases learning anxiety. Students are much more amenable to learning new content when the ideas seem approachable and manageable. Scaffolding gently acclimates students to unfamiliar ideas, preventing them from being overwhelmed.
Scaffolding is a synergistic approach to instruction that helps teachers identify learning gaps and gauge students’ comfort level. By facilitating discussion and letting students openly ask questions, teachers can hear potential misunderstandings in their students’ reasoning. The give-and-take of discussion and interactive learning is a much more effective way to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses than a one-way lecture, followed by a worksheet.
Scaffolding creates a sense of momentum within the lesson. If a teacher introduces fractions with visual aids and sets the expectation that students will eventually create fractions with numbers and fraction bars, they will feel that they are moving toward a goal. When they begin creating fractions abstractly, they’ll see their progression concretely. Clear evidence of their growth will instill confidence, even if they’ve struggled with the content.
Scaffolding motivates students by involving them in the learning process. Indeed, scaffolding is an example of active learning, as opposed to passive learning. During active learning, students participate in the education process. They discuss, ask questions, clarify points of confusion themselves, and work through misconceptions under the teacher’s guidance. They learn not only from the teacher, but also from themselves and their peers, developing intellectual autonomy and collaborative skills.
How can scaffolding be incorporated into the virtual and physical classroom?
Virtual learning does pose some challenges to scaffolding, but teachers still have plenty of options. We’ll cover just a few here.
Real-world connection is a powerful teaching tool that can be implemented anywhere. With real-world connection, students learn through everyday problems and situations that require mathematical solutions. If students are at home, they can use ordinary household objects to learn new concepts. For example, if they’re learning how to add and subtract fractions, they can find a soup recipe that involves fractions. Let’s say a chicken-noodle soup recipe requires 4½ cup of chicken broth, 1¾ cup of vegetable broth, and ½ cup of water. The teacher can task them with calculating the amount of liquid in the soup as they make it with a parent.
Intentional discourse involves drawing students into a lesson by engaging them in conversation. During intentional discourse, teachers facilitate math-related discussions among students. They can do so with carefully selected questions, journal prompts, and small group discussions, to name a few options. Intentional discourse is not necessarily about “getting the right answer.” Rather, it is about exploring new mathematical ideas by articulating their reasoning. To be true problem-solvers, students must know how to discuss mathematical problems, not just solve them. Indeed, discussing mathematical problems is often an important part of solving them in real life. Intentional discourse can be done over Zoom, which gives teachers the option to break students into small groups.
Picture vocabulary is a great way to introduce students to new topics. Seeing a visual representation of a new concept gives students a concrete reference as they learn. It is particularly helpful while teaching English Language Learners (ELL). STEMscopes offers several picture vocabulary cards that students can access digitally or print out at home.
Counterarguments: Possible objections to scaffolding
Scaffolding is a powerful tool, but it does have some drawbacks. Over-scaffolding is one potential danger—providing students so much support that they hardly have to do any work. Some education experts suggest that the tendency to over-scaffold stems from the teacher’s desire to see their students succeed. If a little scaffolding helps them, a lot of scaffolding will take their learning even further. Right? Noble as this desire may be, we must remember that struggling is part of the learning process. Providing an appropriate amount of scaffolding to facilitate productive struggle is the teacher’s goal.
The danger of over-scaffolding can be easily avoided by carefully monitoring students’ response to new content. If students are stalling and succumbing to frustration, provide more scaffolding. If they’re breezing through assignments and activities, remove some support and see how they do. You can also divide students into groups with varying levels of scaffolding based on their skill level.
Scaffolding can also be time consuming and demanding for the teacher. Teachers need to grade, meet with parents and students, review upcoming lessons, and so much more. Now, we’re asking them to spend more time working outside the scheduled school day? STEMscopes was designed by teachers, so we know the struggle. We’ve created tons of scaffolding resources that save teachers valuable time, capture students’ imagination, and promote learning. For example, our Engage elements, Foundation, and Skill Basics make great scaffolding material!
Scaffolding is a constant balancing act. Each lesson will require a different level of scaffolding, as will each student. While it may feel cumbersome some days, it improves learning outcomes and saves teachers precious time down the road. They can spend their classes teaching grade-level content if students receive adequate support when they first encounter new material. Extensively re-teaching below-grade material only strains teachers’ time and energy. STEMscopes’ scaffolding resources will save teachers both now and in the future.