What Is Scaffolding in Education?

Don’t worry. We break down this term into bite-sized chunks.

A student's brain learning through scaffolding -- What is scaffolding in education

You probably first learned the term before you started teaching. And then you likely started using the concept without even knowing it. But you may still be asking, “what is scaffolding in education?”

For starters, here’s a little background. In the 1930s, Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed the concept “zone of proximal development” or ZPD and determined that the correct way to test young students was to test their ability to solve problems both independently and with the help of a teacher.

In 1976, Vygotsky’s work was revived by researchers David Wood, Gail Ross and Jerome Bruner who coined the term “scaffolding.” Their report, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,” found that encouraging students to challenge themselves in grasping new concepts within their ZPD leads to success in learning.

What is scaffolding in education?

It’s a process of teaching where an educator models or demonstrates how to solve a problem, then steps back and encourages the students to solve the problem independently.

Scaffolding teaching gives students the support they need by breaking learning into achievable sizes while they progress toward understanding and independence.


In other words, it’s like when a house is being built. The crew uses scaffolding to help support the structure as its being built. The stronger the house is, the less it needs the scaffolding to hold it up. You’re supporting your students as they learn new concepts. The more their confidence and understanding grow, the less support or scaffolding they need.


The difference between scaffolding and differentiation

Sometimes teachers confuse scaffolding with differentiation. But the two are actually pretty different.

Differentiated instruction is an approach that helps educators tailor teaching so that all students, regardless of their ability, can learn the classroom material. In other words, tailoring teaching to meet the needs of different learning styles.

Scaffolding is defined as breaking learning into bite-sized chunks so students can more easily tackle complex material. It builds on old ideas and connects them to new ones.

Using scaffolding in the classroom

There are a variety of ways to use scaffolding in the classroom.

  1. Model/demonstrate: Use physical and visual aids to model the instruction and help paint a complete picture of the lesson.
  2. Explain the concept in several ways: Use classroom staples such as anchor charts, mind maps and graphic organizers  to allow students to make the connection between abstract concepts and how to understand and read them.
  3. Interactive or collaborative learning: Make small groups responsible for learning and teaching part of the lesson. This is at the core of effective learning and scaffolding.
  4. Build on prior knowledge: You can’t build before you know what concepts your students have mastered and where they need more instruction. This is a great opportunity to identify learning gaps. Using activities such as mini-lessons, journal entries, front-loading concept-specific vocabulary or just a quick class discussion, you can size up where students are.
  5. Present the concept and talk it through: This is where you model the problem, explain how to solve it and why.
  6. Continue to discuss the concept: Break students into small groups. Have them discuss the lesson together. Give them questions to answer about the concept.
  7. Get the whole class involved in the discussion: Ask for student participation. Discuss the concept as a class, involving all levels of understanding into the conversation to illuminate the concept.
  8. Give students time to practice: Have a few students come to the board and try to solve the lesson. Be sure to give them plenty of time to process the new information. This is also a great time to implement cooperative learning structures.
  9. Check for understanding: Here’s your opportunity to see who’s got it and who might need more one-on-one time.

Benefits and challenges of scaffolding

Scaffolding does require time, patience and assessment. If a teacher doesn’t fully grasp where a student is in their comprehension, they may not position the student to successfully learn a new concept. However, when done correctly, scaffolding can give a student improved depth of understanding and problem-solving skills. It also provides a fun, interactive and engaging environment for students to learn in!

For more on scaffolding, check out 15 Ways to Scaffold Learning.

Plus, Scaffolding Writing Instruction for English-Language Learners .

What Is Scaffolding in Education?