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What Is Scaffolding Theory?

Scaffolding Theory is an educational concept where teachers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, then step back, offering support as needed. It's like constructing a building: you remove the scaffolding as the structure becomes self-supporting. How can this theory transform your teaching approach?
G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Scaffolding theory is an approach to education in which an emphasis is placed on what type of material a student can learn, often with regard to what material he or she may require assistance with learning. This is closely related to the concept of the “zone of proximal development,” which is the idea that there is some material students can learn on their own, material that is simply too complex for them to learn based on their current knowledge, and material between these two that they can learn with assistance. Scaffolding theory deals with this middle zone, and proposes that teachers help students learn this material and then remove their assistance once the learning is complete.

Many of the ideas behind scaffolding theory and the zone of proximal development come from the research and concepts proposed by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist. The zone of proximal development establishes several layers of information with regard to a student. At the center of this is the student himself or herself and the information that he or she already understands. Outside of this is the first layer, which is the information the student can learn without help; next is the layer of information a student can learn with assistance from a teacher; and beyond this is information that is too complex for the student’s current level of understanding or education.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The middle area in the zone of proximal development is the basis for a great deal of scaffolding theory. Scaffolding theory basically states that teachers should act as helpers who facilitate the learning of students, evaluating where students are in their learning and providing assistance as needed. Rather than simply teaching whatever the teacher wants, scaffolding theory holds that teachers should evaluate students to understand what information they need help with and what is still too difficult for the student to learn even with help.

Once a teacher understands this, the teacher can help the student learn the material that he or she needs help with. This is called “scaffolding theory” because this action is similar to building a scaffold during construction. A scaffold is a temporary structure that helps support a platform during construction; and teacher assistance is a temporary act that helps build understanding for a student but is ultimately removed. In the end, the student is left with his or her knowledge, since teachers cannot always be there for answers.

As scaffolding theory is applied, the zone of proximal development for a student shifts. The information he or she has learned moves inward toward the center and expands the information that he or she can learn without help. As this happens, information that was once beyond his or her ability to understand even with help becomes information that can be learned with assistance. This process is a model for learning in general and is the basic idea behind much progressive education.

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