Scaffolding is a key instructional strategy designed to encourage student success. Scaffolding in education works similarly to its physical counterpart in that it gives teachers the opportunity to help students reach goals step by step. Consider if students were merely assigned to read a novel of literary fiction and then write an argumentative essay related to the work. Students are then left to build a metaphorical large structure with no foundation materials to support construction. Implementing scaffolding might include a lesson on how to develop an argument, exercises devoted to examining key vocabulary and themes in the book, and a brainstorming session to come up with essay topics. However, scaffolding often gets confused with differentiation. It is important to identify the difference between these learning strategies to pair them effectively.

The Difference Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

Scaffolding and differentiation utilize similar learning strategies; however, they are not synonymous. Differentiation refers to the idea of catering to each student’s individual needs and learning methods. Take our earlier argumentative essay as an example. One student might be rather opinionated but struggle with finding quotes that support his or her point of view. This student could potentially benefit from individual instruction on finding and interpreting textual evidence. Another student might be writing a similar essay and find fantastic supporting quotes, but perhaps struggles with incorporating them into a cohesive essay structure. Both students are working toward the same end goal, but each requires help in different areas. Differentiation and scaffolding complement each other well, which is why these terms are often confused.

Similarly, scaffolding can be done on an individual level, but it also benefits the class as a whole. The idea of scaffolding is to provide structures that clarify learning objectives throughout the course of large projects. Scaffolding also provides support for broader educational goals. Whereas differentiation focuses on how students learn individually, scaffolding aims to provide class-wide instruction to reduce student anxiety when accomplishing tasks. Furthermore, scaffolding clarifies the purpose of specific assignments and learning objectives. Providing students with the ability to succeed and utilize previously learned knowledge allows them to build confidence in their learning techniques. Ideally, scaffolding gives students the opportunity to master tasks confidently and efficiently.

Using Scaffolding and Differentiation Side-by-Side

To effectively use scaffolding techniques in the classroom, a teacher first must consider curriculum goals. What tasks do you want students to accomplish? What are the ultimate goals of each lesson and the curriculum long term? Is there a specific end result you are hoping to achieve? How will that result be quantified? Once these questions are answered, tasks can be developed to reach these goals one step at a time.

Explain to students what they are working toward. It’s important to set clear expectations and build a safe learning environment. Once students understand the overall expectations, create lessons that help create a foundation. This is where differentiation becomes an important educational tool, as students will need assistance with different tasks. Adapt strategies that aid each student’s learning process. As students become more comfortable with the material, they should be able to learn independently, allowing you to slowly remove the scaffolding.

Both scaffolding and differentiation are a beneficial use of classroom time. Allowing students to take control of their own learning requires trusting the class to accomplish tasks on the timeline you anticipated. However, the more clarity you provide the easier it will be for students to work toward completing a lesson.