Scaffolding refers to the temporary support that adults or other competent peers offer when a person is learning a new skill or trying to accomplish a task.
The concept was first introduced by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who was best known for his theories that emphasized the importance of social interaction in the learning and development process. Vygotsky’s theory suggests that learning happens while children interact with peers and adults who possess more knowledge.
Through these interactions, the more knowledgeable other is able to provide instruction, support, and guidance during the early stages of learning. As the child gains skills, the level of support is gradually reduced until they are able to perform the task independently.
Types of Scaffolding
Scaffolding can take a variety of forms. Some different types of scaffolding include:
- Verbal cues
In each instance, the purpose of the scaffold is to provide just enough support to enable the learner to succeed at the task, but not so much support that the learner becomes dependent on the scaffold.
When Is Scaffolding Used?
Scaffolding often occurs naturally in everyday learning situations. A child learning skills from a parent or sibling, for example, often rely on the use of scaffolding.
Scaffolding is also often used in educational settings, where teachers may provide temporary support to help students learn a new concept or skill.
It can also be an important tool in therapeutic settings. Therapists may provide support to help patients develop new coping strategies or overcome difficult situations.
Examples of Scaffolding In Psychology
Scaffolding can be used in various ways in psychology, some examples include:
Adults often use scaffolding to help children develop language skills. This may involve providing verbal cues or prompts, repeating and expanding on a child’s language, or using gestures and visual aids to support communication.
Scaffolding can also be used as a tool to support children’s cognitive development. For example, a teacher may use visual aids or diagrams to help students understand complex concepts, gradually reducing the amount of support as students become more proficient.
Scaffolding can be utilized to support the development and strengthening of social skills in children. For example, a therapist may use role-playing or other interactive techniques to help a child practice social interactions, providing guidance and support as needed.
Scaffolding can be used to support problem-solving skills in both children and adults. A therapist may provide guidance and feedback to help a patient identify and evaluate potential solutions to a problem, gradually reducing the level of support as the patient becomes more skilled.
Scaffolding can also be used to support the development of emotion regulation skills. For example, a therapist may provide guidance and support to help a patient identify and regulate their emotions, gradually reducing the level of support as the patient becomes more proficient.
Important Concepts Related to Scaffolding
Scaffolding is closely related to the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and the more knowledgeable other (MKO), both of which were developed by Lev Vygotsky.
Zone of Proximal Development
The zone of proximal development, sometimes abbreviated as ZPD, refers to the range of tasks or skills that a learner can perform with the assistance of a more skilled or knowledgeable person, but cannot yet perform independently.
This is the area where scaffolding is most effective because it enables the learner to gradually move towards greater independence and competence.
More Knowledgeable Other
The more knowledgeable other, often referred to as the MKO, is the person who provides the scaffolding or assistance. This could be a teacher, parent, peer, or anyone who has more knowledge or skill than the learner in a particular area.
In Vygotsky’s theory, the MKO is critical for supporting the learner’s development within the ZPD. The MKO provides the scaffolding or support needed to help the learner complete the task or master the skill.
As the learner becomes more skilled, the scaffolding is gradually reduced until the learner can perform the task independently.
How to Use Scaffolding
If you are interested in using scaffolding as an instructional tool, there are a number of strategies you can use that will help make it more effective.
Understand the Zone of Proximal Development
Before you begin offering instruction, find out how much the learner already knows or what they are already capable of. Knowing this will help you design and offer instruction that builds on their existing skills and understanding.
Give Adequate Support
Provide enough support that learners do not struggle, but don’t rush to provide answers or solutions. It is okay to allow the learner to spend time figuring out solutions.
Utilize Peer Learning
Encourage learners to work together in groups and allow students to learn from those who have more advanced skills.
Talk About the Process
As you and the learners work through problems, talk about the steps that are involved and what you are doing. When you spot signs that the learner is struggling or doesn’t understand something, then you can step in and offer them the support to help them move forward.
Thus, scaffolding, the ZPD, and the MKO are all interconnected concepts that highlight the importance of social interaction in learning and development. Scaffolding enables the learner to progress through the ZPD with the help of the more knowledgeable other, resulting in greater independence and competence.
Belland BR, Kim C, Hannafin MJ. A framework for designing scaffolds that improve motivation and cognition. Educ Psychol. 2013;48(4):243-270. doi:10.1080/00461520.2083892013.
Zydney JM. Scaffolding. In: Seel NM, ed. Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer US; 2012:2913-2916. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_1103