My new GCSE class were looking panicked.
We had spent two weeks looking at the devastating Nepal earthquake and contrasting it with the one that struck L’Aquila, Italy, a few years before.
They knew all about the causes of the earthquake, the different types of impact it had and how people responded. I knew they knew it. So why was the question “To what extent are the primary impacts of a tectonic hazard more significant than the secondary impacts?” throwing them into such a tailspin?
“But sir,” one piped up. “I don’t know how to start.”
Quick read: Learn to learn: beating procrastination
Want to know more? Why the body is as vital as the brain when it comes to learning
My problem was that I was suffering from the curse of the expert: the problem we all have in forgetting that other people don’t know or can’t do the things that come automatically to us.
When I looked at the question, I could immediately see how to structure my response and use the knowledge I have of the subject to answer the question.
Unfortunately, while I had passed on this subject knowledge, the substantive knowledge, I hadn’t done the same with the disciplinary knowledge, the way we approach the subject to answer questions such as this one.
This is where scaffolding comes in. Most teachers will use scaffolding as a normal part of their teaching process to support pupils who are struggling, giving them sentence starters, prompts, or the task broken down.
As ever, though, I am interested in understanding the whys of teaching, to better support the use of strategies. So why do we scaffold?
What is scaffolding?
The idea of scaffolding as part of an instructional design (or “teaching”) began with the work of educational researcher Jerome Bruner, although he was building on earlier work from psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who suggested that children need support from more knowledgeable experts when learning something new.
In an influential paper from 1976 (The role of tutoring in problem solving), he looked at the role adults played in helping young children build complex shapes from wooden blocks. This study suggests that scaffolding plays a number of important roles in supporting a child to learn, including:
Getting the pupil to engage in the task.
Simplifying the task by breaking it into easier stages.
Maintaining interest in the task.
Drawing attention to the most relevant parts of the task.
Modelling solutions to the task.
Barak Rosenshine also discusses the important role of scaffolding, not only in his increasingly well known Principles of Instruction (2012), but also in earlier papers, such as his review of evidence of how scaffolding could be used to support the teaching of cognitive strategies – what we would now probably call “metacognition”.
In this paper, Rosenshine and Meister suggest that scaffolding is effective after pupils have developed the knowledge they need to complete a task and when they are ready to be supported in thinking about their approach to the task.
They suggest scaffolding is used in this instance to show the thinking of the expert in the room (the teacher), as they tackle the challenge first. They also suggest that the teacher can scaffold by giving cues as to how to complete the task.
This would mean they don’t need to concentrate on getting the structure of the task right, but instead free up working memory to think about the content of the task – the thing you want them to learn.
Both Bruner and Rosenshine and Meister make the point that, over time, we need to remove the scaffold so that they are able to complete this type of task without them. In the latter case, they suggest that the processes that have been scaffolded should become automated so that they can be followed without thought – just like an expert.
Identifying good scaffolding
What does this look like in the classroom? In the example from the start of this piece, I might want to begin by live-modelling my own response to the question, explaining my thought process as I go.
“I am going to start by working out what my conclusion to the question is so I can work towards it…”
“If I’m stuck for an opening line I can begin with the question, so I’ll say…”
“I want to make the point that low-income countries might suffer more from secondary effects. As a geographer, I need to use an example to prove this point, so I’ll say…”
Alternatively, I might want to use structure strips. These are thin pieces of paper that can be stuck into the margin of the exercise book to instruct pupils in which information they need to include in each paragraph. This gives them the structure to think about which information to include instead.
It gives, in Bruner’s words, “a reduction in degrees of freedom” and reduces the panic of not knowing what to write. It also breaks down a complex task into more manageable stages.
Over time, I’d want to make sure that these approaches to answering complex questions were becoming automated. I might do this by bringing in more questioning into live-modelling so that the class were called upon to build up the model together, or by asking them to create their own structure strips before they answered the question.
I could then continue to give more complete scaffolding to those who needed it, by providing prompts and cues on a mini whiteboard.
For more on this, I make no apology for once again recommending this blog post on the mini whiteboard in the inclusive classroom by Jules Daulby.
The idea of scaffolding is unlikely to be new to any teacher, but I hope that by reminding ourselves of the rationale behind it, we can find more effective ways to give pupils the support they need to reach ever greater heights.