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Teaching Tips

Are We Scaffolding Too Much?

August 10, 2023

by: Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey

7 mins


1976. The Bee Gee’s “You Should Be Dancing” tops the charts, the Apple Computer Company is founded, Saturday Night Fever is in production, and last but not least, researchers Wood, Bruner, and Ross coin the phrase instructional scaffolding to describe a process through which a teacher adds supports for students to aid in the mastery of tasks.

Fast-forward fifty years, and it’s irrefutable—scaffolding had more staying power than disco. Jokes aside, many of us think of scaffolding as the essence of teaching.  It’s the “What” of the gradual release of responsibility model, the fine-print actions of I Do/We Do/You Do Together/You Do Alone. Learners work alongside teachers to develop proficiency in a specific skill that begins with the teacher modeling the skill (the “I Do”). Through low-stakes tasks, the learner mimics the actions of the teacher and reflects on his or her experience.  This is called approximating (“We Do”). Over time, the learner begins to engage in higher-stakes tasks with the role of the teacher fading away, and students consolidate their understanding with peers (“You Do Together”).  Finally, the learner performs the actual task independently, seeking assistance from the teacher when needed (“You Do Alone”). This leads to self-directed learning and the student applying the learning independently.  But here’s the rub.

Scaffolding can become excessive to the point that struggle has been removed from learning.  As a result, students who have been over-scaffolded may acquire information sufficiently to pass a test (at best), but they don’t have the means to knowledge-seek and problem-solve using their learning in new and novel situations. 

Students Need Productive Success and Failure

Students deserve an opportunity to grapple with ideas and information.  They need to wallow a bit in the learning pit (Nottingham, 2017), and they need to experience both productive success and productive failure (Kapur, 2016).  If we pre-teach and front-load too much, and we don’t take the training wheels away, students have a hard time finding their own momentum and balance as learners. This problem of practice led us to ask the question: How do teachers get better at supporting learners in the process of learning rather than removing the struggle? 

We wrote the book How Scaffolding Works to synthesize the research and provide teachers with a model for effective scaffolding. The model we share below helps us implement scaffolding before, during, and after learning. Importantly, in each of its four parts, there are instructional moves that help teachers resist the temptation to over-scaffold. 

Mental Model

Effective scaffolding begins with a clear, articulated vision of where our lessons and tasks are headed. What are we scaffolding towards?  What does proficiency or mastery look like in the end?  By literally putting these ideas in writing, we create a mental model of our expectations for students that we will attach our scaffolds to.  Let’s look at two examples of complex and often difficult learning: 

  1. Constructing a viable mathematical argument
  2. Using text features to make meaning

In the chart below, we listed the essential information needed to achieve proficiency or mastery in content, skills, and understanding.  

Constructing a Viable Mathematical Argument Using Text Features to Make Meaning
  • Identify the key aspects of the mathematical problem
  • Describe the approach or approaches for solving the problem
  • Explain the argument using mathematics vocabulary 
  • Present the argument in a logical sequence that connects the previous step, current step, and next step
  • Assess the reasonableness of the solution
  • Identify alternative arguments and address them in the explanation 
  • Summarize the information in the text
  • Link the summary to specific evidence from the text
  • Identify the text features included in the text
  • Describe the information presented by the text feature
  • Explain how the text feature contributed to understanding the text
  • Relate the evidence from the text, the text features, and the meaning of the text

Tips to Avoid Over-Scaffolding

Without a clear mental model and the recognition that there is a solution to the problem, students are not likely to respond to the scaffolds. When that is the case, students fail to respond to the supports that are provided later in the lesson.

Goal Setting

Next, to implement scaffolding, we must ask: How much scaffolding is necessary to support learners’ progress toward the mental model?  How do we scaffold learners as they progress toward proficiency and mastery?  Scaffolding works when we:

  • Identify where students are in their learning journey.
  • Make a relative comparison between their current location and the mental model.
  • Set measurable and attainable goals to move forward in their learning.   

This process works best when learners are involved in setting their own goals and mapping out a plan for meeting those goals.  However, this process must be scaffolded as well.  We might first set the goals, then set them collaboratively with students, and finally, allow learners to set their own goals.  

Tips to Avoid Over-Scaffolding  

  • The goal we set for our learners or that learners set for themselves must be meaningful and necessary.  The goal should be related to specific opportunities for growth.  There is simply no value in setting a goal for something the learner can already do well.  This requires us to work alongside our learners and interpret the evidence generated in the initial assessment task. 
  • The goal must be specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic.  Setting goals that are too general can lead to a lack of focus and motivation.  For example, a goal of “getting better at math” lacks the specificity needed to develop measurable and attainable steps toward that goal.  A goal that a learner “will utilize the multiplication chart to verify their calculation of a common denominator when adding two fractions” is specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic.
  • There must be a system for documenting the goal and placing the goal in a conspicuous place.  If we set a goal and then never see or look at the goal, that goal will soon be forgotten.  In documenting the goal and placing that goal in our interactive notebooks, on our desks, in our literacy folder, or on our student growth chart in the back of the room, the goal is in the visual field. In doing so, it remains on our minds and our students’ minds.
  • We must create a plan for moving toward the goal. Setting a goal is one thing.  Creating a plan is another thing altogether.  The plans that are most helpful are those that require learners to identify and reflect on their perceived barriers or challenges. This spotlights where to place scaffolds.  This also spotlights where we must seek to gradually remove the scaffold and increase learner responsibility.
  • Finally, goal setting requires a system for monitoring progress and check-ins on progress toward the goal.  Whether using teacher-student or student-student conferencing, the monitoring of progress allows us to adjust the level of scaffolding, move the scaffolding to a different location, or completely remove the scaffolding.  

Tips to Avoid Over-Scaffolding

Make sure the goals focus on learning rather than doing. Completing a task is not the goal; learning from the task is.  When the goals are too easy or boring, it takes a lot of work to get students to engage, and we end up over-scaffolding.  Likewise, when the goals are out-of-reach, we scaffold too much because students cannot accomplish the learning without extensive support.

Front-End, Distributed, Peer, and Back-End Scaffolding

We use different types of scaffolding as we guide students to mastery of a particular skill or concept.  These include front-end scaffolds that are enacted in advance of the learning and are designed to reduce the cognitive demand on the learner as they engage in the task. Pre-teaching vocabulary, showing a video, and reading aloud the text are examples of front-end scaffolds.  Distributed scaffolds are those that are implemented, monitored, and adjusted during the learning process.  Peer scaffolding is when peers learn to support the learning of others.  These three scaffolds differ from those that are used after the learning tasks have been completed; these are the back-end scaffolds

Tips to Avoid Over-Scaffolding

Front-end scaffolds tend to be the most common type we see in classrooms. The challenge is that they can reduce the rigor of the learning if used indiscriminately. For example, telling students what the words mean in advance might reduce the need for students to use their developing word-solving skills, such as morphological analysis. Similarly, explaining the main ideas of a text to students may reduce their need to read the text. So we suggest that when planning them, ask yourself: Do all of the students in my class need this scaffold? If so, it’s wise to use it. If not, then turn your attention to distributed scaffolds.     

When using distributed scaffolds, it’s helpful to consider both just-in-case scaffolds and just-in-time scaffolds. Just-in-case scaffolds are supports we might provide students at the outset and are enacted at the front end. Just-in-time scaffolds are supports we have anticipated some students may need, but we don’t offer them until we notice through classroom conversation, peer work, writing, and so on that students could benefit from them. These scaffolds might support any learner who shows signs of unproductive struggle, or they might accelerate and enrich the task for those students who communicate a readiness for a greater challenge. Often, these distributed scaffolds involve prompting and cueing or providing hints so that the students can complete the tasks that allow them to learn.

With peer scaffolding, it’s frankly tougher to over-support; we believe learners working in partnership and small groups are a potent engine of support and engagement. Having said that, we owe it to learners that they understand the difference between helping one another versus doing the work for their peers. 

We consider all these types of distributed scaffolds as guard rails against over-supporting because, with each one, we don’t offer them unless we see unproductive struggle. They are all predicated on formative assessment, watching learners, and listening to them think. 

Fading the Scaffolds

Scaffolds on buildings are supposed to be temporary.  They are intended to be taken down when the structure underneath is ready.  In education, the taking down process is called fading, which can occur within a conversation, an activity, a unit, or across the year or course (Martin et al., 2018).  Fading involves decreasing the amount or type of scaffolding needed to complete a task or activity.  Of course, the goal is for the student to use the skill or concept in a variety of situations, which is known as generalization or transfer.

Fading efforts on the part of the teacher occur when the teacher determines readiness on the part of her or his students to take on the last stage of the framework – an independent practice approach described as ‘You do.' Approximately 90 percent of the responsibility is placed on the students for their own learning and mastery of the content.

At this phase, the students are comfortable with the content and can easily progress through the learning activities assigned, participate in small and large group discussions with little assistance from the teacher, can generate new questions and discussions, and apply the newly learned content. Teachers fully facilitate learning, listen in on conversations, and formatively assess the progress of each student.

This is the phase of learning where one sees the greatest degree of productive struggle. Productive struggle provides an opportunity for students to think through and grapple with complex concepts that may have multiple reasonable outcomes. The ability to facilitate student conversation is a skill that master teachers often demonstrate. 

Tips for Avoiding Over-Supporting

Skillful educators encourage students to agree, disagree, debate, and contribute alternative answers to the central content being discussed. As a result, teachers allow student teams to persist with the concept in which complex thinking and heavy lifting reside with the students.

It’s All About the Transfer

Scaffolds are an important tool that teachers use to facilitate learning.  However, if used in excess, or if they are only used on the front-end, or if they are not faded so that the learning has a chance of sticking, then students become dependent on teachers and the support they provide, failing to learn and eventually transfer their learning to new situations.  Wise teachers plan for a range of scaffolds, especially distributed scaffolds, and test opportunities to fade their scaffolds to ensure that students become interdependent and independent. 

To learn more about how to implement scaffolds in your instruction properly, watch the latest episode of Literacy Matters.

About the Authors

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of educational leadership at San Diego State University and a leader at Health Sciences High and Middle College. Previously, Doug was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He is the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and an Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. He has published numerous articles on teaching and learning as well as books such as How Scaffolding Works, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, PLC+, Visible Learning for Literacy, How Tutoring Works, and How Learning Works. Doug loves being an educator and hopes to share that passion with others.