In 1957, Jerome Bruner introduced Scaffolding Theory as a term to describe language learning in young children. He was referring to a method or structure in which students are able to absorb language and progress to learning independently over a period of instruction.
Bruner described an interactive and collaborative method which focused on understanding the learner’s current ability (“Learner’s Zone of Proximal Development”) and setting up an environment where the teacher’s guidance could gradually be removed. In this way, he analogized the method with the idea of construction using a scaffold.
The Three Scaffolds
The theory, at its core, is held together by three principles: collaboration, the zone of proximal development, and the gradual removal of structure.
When implementing a collaborative learning style, the teacher is tasked with involving students in the process as much as possible. Taking contributions and praising them are a fundamental part of encouraging an active learning environment where students are engaged. Included in this is the teacher’s participation. Instructors should share their thought processes as much as possible. Initially, the learning task can be tackled wholly by the teacher who voices his method to the students and explains the logic behind it. As the lesson develops, students can model their contributions around this thought process and contribute to further group examples. Similar to teaching a child to ride a bike for the first time, the learner benefits greatly from seeing the process in action, understanding the mental mechanics of it and gradually taking on the process independently; first with training wheels and eventually without.
The Zone of Proximal Development underpins the entire process. This term was first described by Lev Vygotsky and describes the area of knowledge that a learner is familiar with and can realistically build toward. Since the end goal of the Scaffolding method is to have children working independently, it is important to understand their current level and set tasks in which they are capable of working independently. Mentors should be highly aware of the boundaries of their students and what they will be able to achieve over the long course. By keeping track of this, learners are constantly in an engaging environment where they feel challenged. As the scaffolding is removed and improvement is attained, the zone shifts upwards. This can happen continuously and marks the true potential of the method. The sky, in this case, is literally the limit.
The gradual removal of structure naturally pushes the student to work by themselves. After having clear instruction on how to obtain a solution, learners are able to model their thought processes to match this. They succeed, are praised and level up their Zone of Proximal Development.
How High Can We Build?
What the scaffolding theory does is allow students who were previously incapable of reaching a certain standard to gradually move up to it. Because it is, by natural, a system that relies on progression from a student’s individual point of competency, the learner is always able to improve. Some may move slowly, others more rapidly but the general direction, like a construction site, is upward. Over time, as the method is imbued into the learning process, students are able to work more quickly, absorb more ideas, contribute more effectively and, as a result, reach levels they previously thought they could not.
We can use a variety of methods to implement scaffolding in the classroom: Diagrams, rubrics, flow charts, modeling, worked examples, brainstorms. These are fundamental to providing familiarity, support and guidance where the content is pushing students beyond their comfort zones. Scaffolding ensures that improvement is consistent, personal and only as challenging as the work demands.
The onus lies with educators and parents. Scaffolding works best when it is applied individually to students and when there is a clear understanding between student and mentor. If we are able to properly gauge our learner’s zone of proximal development and actively encourage them to take steps of their own, we can get the best out of them. Equally, setting work at too easy or difficult a level without offering support can restrict potential. Bruner aptly named the theory: we, as the scaffold, should rise above the brick and mortar but stay within sight and always act as a safe and reliable platform for our students to build on their abilities.