Shortcomings of the Scaffolding Metaphor for Teaching

“So, what does that mean—’I need to provide more scaffolding’?” a teacher asked, with frustration in his voice. He was just back from a peer review debrief. “Maybe that’s more a suggestion than a criticism,” I offered. “Okay, but what do I do to provide more scaffolding?” he asked.

In the age of Google, answers are only a click away. Soon I was poking through a confusing array of 234,000 options. During the last 30 years, scaffolding has at one time or another referred to any and all teaching activities: modeling, assessing, questioning, monitoring, and prompting as well as baby talk, software, textbooks, problems, analogies, and plain old encouraging words. It can refer to physical objects like computers and calculators or cultural objects like language and tradition. It is a noun referring to material and symbolic structures. It is a verb referring to transient actions.

Meaning anything that might help someone learn, the term seems to be another way of gassing up the folkways of teaching so that they sound profound. Researchers use it to discuss what teachers do when focused on learners. Acclaimed as “one of the most recommended, versatile, and powerful instructional techniques,” it supposedly prompts teachers to get out of the way.

So what did the peer reviewer mean when he told my colleague to “provide more scaffolding”? Probably the reviewer thinks my colleague’s students need more help. What kind of help? The help that helps them learn. How much more? As much help as helps them learn more. With this language, experts (and peer reviewers) can say something erudite about any classroom practice without offering much in the way of help. Can we do any better?

Alternatives to the scaffolding metaphor
Sometimes good metaphors further understanding. Such figures of speech can help us see familiar aspects in something new or see something familiar in a new light. The scaffolding metaphor doesn’t do either. It functions more like a crock of oatmeal (to use a metaphor) covering and congealing what instructors do.

So how might scaffolding as an object relate to teaching? It can refer to efforts to prop up a learner or to create a situation in which a learner can do something. Accordingly, instruction can prevent failure or enable learning. Either teaching is a set of protective activities that eliminate mistakes and reduce frustration or it is what an instructor designs to allow learners to perform beyond their normal capacity. In our hearts we would like our teaching to do both.

But the point of teaching cannot be to eliminate or even reduce the likelihood of failure. To eliminate failure throttles the learner. For the student does the learning. The student must be free to think and act and, in so doing, err—and recover. That is the cost of learning. To prescribe that teachers enable learning is a tautology. Of course that is what we want to do—the question we beg is: “How?”

How do you help without promoting helplessness? How do you challenge without promoting defeat? How do you induce learning by doing without scarring those who cannot do? These questions need research and discussion that take a fresh perspective and vocabulary that helps us name the crucial activities. What we don’t need are more names for our ignorance that don’t clarify our practice.

Are there any good metaphors out there to help us describe, discuss, and conduct research on these issues? More likely they are to be found in other learning situations. To start, here are two: the training wheels we put on bicycles to enable youngsters to learn balance and the T-ball pedestal that allows six-year-olds to play baseball. Each device works by restricting and focusing the teacher’s role while expanding the learner’s opportunities. Both offer new and more fruitful ways of looking at learning designs and teaching practices. Both allow us to escape the scaffolding that now prevents further construction of understanding.

Larry D. Spence, PhD is the director of Undergraduate Learning Initiatives in the School of Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State University.

Excerpted from A Critique of Scaffolding, The Teaching Professor, volume 23, number 5.