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Scaffolding in education

How to apply scaffolding in education

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Instructional scaffolding relates closely to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), a term used to describe the gap between what a learner can do unassisted and what they can achieve if supported by a more knowledgeable mentor figure (1978). The process of scaffolding helps a learner to bridge this gap and improve their skills so that they can eventually perform more complex tasks unaided. It does so by initially providing a high level of support, then removing this in increments until the task can be performed by the learner independently. Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) describe the concept as support given to a less experienced learner by a more experienced figure. This support could come in various forms, including modelling a task, offering advice to the learner or providing one-to-one coaching. In a classroom setting, a teacher may need to do this for several learners at once and use a variety of methods throughout a session to achieve this. Brush and Saye (2001) state that scaffolding can be either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’: ‘soft’ scaffolding occurs in response to a particular situation (e.g. questioning a learner’s approach to a task and supporting as needed), whereas ‘hard’ scaffolding is planned in advance (e.g. by embedding specific cues in the lesson to trigger higher-level thinking and understanding). Further, Holton and Clark (2006) discuss ‘reciprocal’ scaffolding: grouping learners together to allow them to learn and develop from each other’s experiences and insights. While scaffolding is largely accepted as being central to modern teaching practice, some academics have critiqued it on the basis that it prevents learners from making mistakes, thereby depriving them of the valuable learning experience that this can bring (Spence, 2006).


Brush, T. & Saye, J. (2001). ‘The use of embedded scaffolds with hypermedia-supported student-centered learning’. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 10.4, 333–356.

Holton, D. and Clark, D. (2006). ‘Scaffolding and metacognition.’ International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 37, 127-143.

Spence, L. (2006). ‘A Critique of Scaffolding.’ The Teaching Professor, 23.5, 6.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). ‘The role of tutoring in problem solving’. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.