Scaffolding - what and how

Scaffolding – what and how

I was thinking about this term and how we often use it when talking about teaching young children. But I am not sure that we all understand the term in the same way or how important the idea of supporting and nurturing learning is with all students whatever their age or level or even the subject we are teaching. So, I have decided to unpick the idea here.

The term was first used in the educational context by Jerome Bruner (1915-2016), an American psychologist who specialized in human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory in educational psychology. 

He identified six specific aspects of scaffolding are essential to support learning:

1. Learners need to be made interested in a task

The child is curious…wants to make sense of things… is open and receptive… experimental.. bold… not afraid of making mistakes… is patient…can tolerate an extraordinary amount of uncertainty, confusion, ignorance and suspense.. 

John Holt, 1968

Although we are all born with an abundance of curiosity and interest in the world around us, with the average 4 year old asking around 390 questions a day, it is a tragic fact that schools have the capacity for numbing that curiosity and dulling interest in learning.

How can we pique learners’ interest then? To start with we need to take into account the interests of our students and ensure we use age and level appropriate material for creating contexts for language that will draw them in. For example, illustrated story books for children, popular songs for teens and newspaper articles of interest to our adult classes. 

A strong start is crucial for any lesson. With very young learners playing ‘what’s in the box?’ can really excite and engage them. You have a brightly decorated large box to use and every lesson you put a toy, object or picture inside that relates to the topic of the day e.g. a banana if the topic is food or a toy elephant if you will be listening to the song “Nellie the elephant’. Once the children are settled at the start of the lesson, you bring out the box and together chant ‘what’s in the box?’ and the children can take turns guessing what is inside. By the time you open the box, curiosity will definitely be aroused.

A cheeky way I have of starting lessons with teens and adults is by telling them to close their books, as I have something to share with them and I recount an (hopefully amusing or strange) anecdote that either is or seems real and answer their questions about what happened to me and lo and behold that leads into the topic of the lesson…

Tasks that intrigue and challenge students are the best. For example, I bring in a box of what seems like rubbish – old boxes, plastic bottles, newspapers, string etc. and ask students to work in groups to create a model of an innovative form of transport. 

We, teachers, have to put our thinking hats on to create tasks that generate the initial interest and hold students’ attention.

2. The task may need to be simplified / broken down into manageable chunks

This is key – a step by step approach is crucial to ensure students can do a task successfully. For example, imagine you want your students (of any age) to act out a restaurant role play using food vocabulary and the functional language associated with ordering food and talking about likes and dislikes. Consider each element students need to achieve that – reviewing food vocabulary, names of dishes, reading a menu, introducing and/or practising ‘I’d like’ versus ‘I like’ etc., choosing which language to include, focus on pronunciation and polite intonation as well as the rising intonation in questions. So, when planning the lesson, work backwards and create a checklist of what students need and ensure that these threads are all there so that students can enjoy the satisfaction at the end of the lesson of a task well done.

3. They made need to be shown how to do things

Before students start doing an exercise in pairs or groups, I always do one or two of the questions together as a class. I do these slowly and point out what mechanics / skills are involved, so that everyone is clear what they need to do. I will also monitor them closely as they start work independently and go over the process with students who need a bit more help.

4. Their frustration needs to be managed

This is an interesting one. It is too easy to blame students when they stall or give up on a task, but we should consider our role here. 

We can pre-empt frustration by meticulously going through the first three stages but even then, things can go awry. I always monitor what students are doing, encouraging and stepping in to help if necessary. It’s not just young children who get frustrated if the picture they are colouring gets squashed up, adult students can get stalled or confused and want to give up on tasks, too. 

Consider, also how you group students when they are engaged in a task. It may be a good idea to think about their personalities, group dynamics and language levels in different skills to make sure they have the right balance to cheer and inspire each other.

And pay attention to how students are managing doing a task. Awareness of mood and frustration levels is key for teachers.

5. They need to see model of what they need to achieve 

Consider the value of using models as well as giving instructions. In the example above of the restaurant role play in Step 2, can you find a video, a listening or a text which can act as a template for students own role play?

You may want high level students to write a persuasive essay and give a presentation based on it, can you give some examples e.g. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech

6. And they need to be engaged and find solutions themselves!

It is a fine line between supplying scaffolding for tasks and becoming too teacher centred.

Carl Jung’s model of a teacher / parent, suggest a four-step approach and this chimes well with the concept of scaffolding:

Think – give information
Direct – give direction
Feel – care about well-being and success
Do – give confidence to carry out work

The final step is key. Students need us to give the right amount of support and encouragement, so that they can be successful and know that they have found the right answer / done a great job themselves.

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