Scaffolding

Scaffolding might be the sine qua non of teaching*, but it’s not always given the attention it deserves. It’s something that seems to get covered on training courses but not much after that** That’s okay because everyone knows a bit about it and probably does it without thinking about it too much, however recently I went to a talk where a really weird description of scaffolding was given by a pretty experienced teacher. That made me want to explain what I think scaffolding is all about; if it’s weird, maybe someone will help me understand in the comments.

What is scaffolding?

If you live in Seoul, you’re probably aware of this monstrosity marvel of engineering***. If you look at the top you can see all the scaffolding. The scaffolding is there so that workpeople can do their thing with glass and concrete. Eventually though, there will be enough actual building there for them to do their thing without the scaffolding. They’ll move that scaffolding further up the building and repeat the process. This all folds into an incredibly neat metaphor for English language teaching. Lotte World Tower is a student’s knowledge of English. The workpeople are mental processes. The scaffolding is the, well, scaffolding: useful things the teacher does to help the student work at a higher level than they would otherwise be able to. Eventually the student’s tower of English language knowledge is developed enough that they don’t need the scaffolding anymore and you can scaffold at a higher level.

Two examples

Still confused? Some examples might help make things more concrete (sorry). My school is a two-story building. We have a class upstairs that is made up of 4 year olds (2-3 Western age). When they started this year they were really bad at walking up stairs, they’re still a little bad now. There are three options the teachers could take

  1. Let them walk up stairs on their own.
  2. Walk up stairs with them holding their hand.
  3. Carry them upstairs.

Number 1 is dangerous and is also not scaffolding, they’re not getting any help from the teacher to do something hard. Number 3 is also not scaffolding, they’re not actually learning anything by being carried upstairs. Number 2 is scaffolding, they can practice putting one foot in front of the other while not having to worry about balance so much.

Another example would be in my 5 year old classes. Lots of them still can’t write too well. The work books have stickers in. If there is a picture of a cloud, the students put an It’s cloudy.” sticker underneath. By doing this they can practice knowing what the words “It’s cloudy.” look like without being burdened by having to actually write them.

Pitfalls

I think scaffolding is easy to understand and do, but under or over scaffolding can be a problem. If not enough help is given, pupils won’t be able to do what’s needed. If there is too much help, the students aren’t really engaging their knowledge of English, they’re just using the scaffolding. I think over-scaffolding might be a bigger problem because it’s not as obvious when it happens. I found a problem in the class with the stickers above: the stickers had different coloured backgrounds. These colours matched with the holes where the stickers were supposed to go. Lots of my pupils ended up putting the stickers in upside-down. All this suggested to me that they were using the colours not the words to solve the exercise. Be careful!

Another thing I used to do a lot is plan something too hard and expect scaffolding to make up the difference. Not too much to say about this one except I worry it made my students hate me a little. It’s not fun for anyone.

Follow up questions

  1. How do you scaffold in your classroom?
  2. What has gone wrong/right with scaffolding for you?
  3. Are some types of scaffolding particularly useful/useless?
  4. Is your understanding of scaffolding different to mine? Is mine really weird?

*If you’re giving activities without any scaffolding, the activity is doing all the teaching, not you. Luckily most teachers do at least some scaffolding

**there was something at the KOTESOL conference last year, but I was still hungover and asleep at home when it happened.

*** If you’re near here, come round for a cup of tea, I live just across the river.