Instructional scaffolding (also known as educational scaffolding) refers to the process of supporting students as they work to achieve educational goals that they would be unable to accomplish on their own.
Just as construction workers add temporary scaffolding to buildings, teachers can use instructional scaffolding techniques to put temporary “props” in place as students “build up” their skills and knowledge. Eventually, once the student has been sufficiently trained, the scaffolding can gradually fade away and be removed.
The concept of educational scaffolding was mainly promoted by Jerome Bruner in the 1960s.
Scaffolding should be applied when a student needs to progress through his or her own zone of proximal development, i.e. the field between what learners can do on their own and what they can potentially achieve if they given proper support.
For example, if a teacher assigns high-level reading assignments, they can make use of instructional scaffolding by providing definitions of difficult vocabulary words so that students will be able to understand the text.
Here is another example of instructional scaffolding provided by SimplyPsychology.org (emphasis added):
Maria just entered college this semester and decided to take an introductory tennis course. Her class spends each week learning and practicing a different shot. Weeks go by and they learn how to properly serve and hit a backhand. During the week of learning the forehand, the instructor notices that Maria is very frustrated because she keeps hitting her forehand shots either into the net or far past the baseline.
He examines her preparation and swing. He notices that her stance is perfect, she prepares early, she turns her torso appropriately, and she hits the ball at precisely the right height. However, he notices that she is still gripping her racquet the same way she hits her backhand, so he goes over to her and shows her how to reposition her hand to hit a proper forehand, stressing that she should keep her index finger parallel to the racquet. He models a good forehand for her, and then assists her in changing her grip. With a little practice, Maria’s forehand turns into a formidable weapon for her!
In this case, Maria was in the zone of proximal development for successfully hitting a forehand shot. She was doing everything else correctly, but just needed a little coaching and scaffolding from a “More Knowledgeable Other” to help her succeed in this task. When that assistance was given, she became able to achieve her goal. Provided with appropriate support at the right moments, so too will students in our classrooms be able to achieve tasks that would otherwise be too difficult for them.
Instructional Scaffolding is a key ingredient to any educational program, and with proper application, it can help students achieve their full potential.