Scaffolding … what is it and how does it work

Hello All,

I am currently teaching a class in child development to undergraduates. As you may be able to tell from the posts, I approach teaching applied statistics (including research method and psychometrics) from a cognitive developmental approach. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I also get to teach developmental classes from time to time. Yet, what has surprised me is that I cannot find any good references on how a professor or teacher implements one of the most critical pedagogical practices I know of … scaffolding.

So, I thought I would write information about scaffolding as a technique to help students develop, and share it with you.

Scaffolding Defined:

Scaffolding is a technique that an expert (e.g., parent, teacher or professor) implements to help a learner develop a certain set of knowledge or skill. In general, it relies upon the expert constraining a learning environment in a manner so that the learner can master component pieces of the activity. Without the aid of the expert constraining the environment, the learning is unlikely to develop by him or herself.

Scaffolding Example with Young Children:

Think about putting together a puzzle. You would never give a 3 or 4 year old a 1000 piece puzzle to solve.

Image result for images of puzzles

It would simply overwhelm the child. Instead, we give young children

Image result for images of puzzles.

puzzle pieces that fit into a board. The puzzle pieces are larger. Some times they even have handles on them to help with the limited fine motor skills of young children. The images on the puzzle pieces help distinguish what goes where in the puzzle. Each of these constraints are a type of scaffolding. And if a child is very new to putting together puzzles, the expert probably turns all of the pieces facing up in the direction that they will go into the puzzle itself. So, the child doesn’t have to turn over puzzle pieces or rotate them. Such examples that parents world wide exhibit are examples of scaffolding the situation so the child can experience success and develop. And over time, we go from having the puzzle pieces right side up and having the board around the edge to hold the puzzle pieces and having larger pieces, to that 1000 piece puzzle set. But it takes time, and the learner is who sets the pace of what scaffolding is put into place  and when it can be removed.

Zone of Proximal Development: 

Many people think that Vygotsky, a developmental researcher from the 20th century, came up with the concept of scaffolding. He didn’t. However, he did propose the zone of proximal development, which is critical for the process of scaffolding. The zone of proximal development is at a point in a learner’s development where the learner is not able to complete a particular task or generate a set of knowledge on his or her own. However, with the help of an expert, the learner begins to develop to the point of being able to complete a task or generate knowledge. Development while the child is in the zone of proximal development is not possible without the active involvement of the expert … someone like a professor in statistics.

Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development:

So, a professor interested in helping a student develop needs to recognize when the student is in the zone of proximal development … that is the student is ready to learn, but still needs aid in learning. This can come in many forms, including modeling of how to do something like calculating a standard deviation, making use of Socratic questioning to guide the student to a deeper understanding, or applying the pedagogical principle of scaffolding to capitalize on the learner being in the zone of proximal development. Thus, there are many ways to reach a student who is in the zone of proximal development, scaffoding is just one of those techniques.

Statistical example of Scaffolding:

I had a student once come to my office in a state of panic. He had an applied statistics class with another professor at a different college. The professor was teaching about standard deviation. Students were supposed to calculate and interpret a standard deviations from a set of data. The student read and reread the textbook, attended class, and even asked the professor for help. Yet, the student was still clueless as to how to begin to find a standard deviation. The student was certain he was destine to fail statistics. He couldn’t look at the formula and figure out where to begin. This is not scaffolding at all.

A professor who scaffolds tasks associated with the standard deviation begins by teaching about the deviation, that is the difference between each individual observation and the mean. By constraining the conceptual and mathematical components of a standard deviation to X – mean, students really begin to get a sense of what the standard deviation is telling us, and how we are getting that information. And let’s face it, even our weakest students know how to subtract one number from another.

After the student masters the deviation, we continue working through to help students figure out how to find a sum of squares. Finding the sum of squares ∑(X-M)^2 constrains the calculations for finding the standard deviation. Moreover, it further helps them understand why the standard deviation is the square root of the variance … and where all of this is coming from.

I have students calculate about 40 sum of squares before they calculate one standard deviation. By breaking the standard deviation into pieces … deviations, then squared deviation, then the sum of the squared deviation, then the variance … to the standard deviation. I am capitalizing on the zone of proximal development, constraining the situation, providing them with smaller tasks upon which they can be successful.

It sure beats throwing a formula up on the board and expecting students to break it down for themselves. Sure, about 5 percent of my students can do that … but I have to teach 100% of my students. Scaffolding enables me to reach those in the zone of proximal development.

(Note: you can find more details regarding how to scaffold in the teaching of standard deviations, with examples of hands on activities in Green and Stowell (2017) found in Stowell and Addision’s (eds.) Activities for Teaching Statistics and Research Methods: A Guide for Psychology Instructors.

Additional Scaffolding Resources for teachers of applied statistics:

I am happy to say, I am currently working with two other colleagues, Dr. Kristin Noblet, and Dr. John Protzko to update the Assignments and Exercises for Students (Green & Sandry, 2010) available through Pearson,

The first edition really provides a great way to help students master statistical concepts by using several types of scaffolding techniques. All professors can access this resource for free.

I promise when we get the second edition in print, I will provide everyone with information on how to access it at that time.

When I am teaching college students who are preparing to be teachers, I tell them … if you can only learn one pedagogical tool, make it scaffolding, as nothing does a better job at moving a student from being unable to learn and master material to success.

I welcome comments and examples from others who have successful used scaffolding to teach applied statistics.

Until the next time … happy thinking!



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