Scaffolding in architecture refers to a temporary structure created to support workers and help with construction of buildings. Scaffolding in education is much the same. It is a strategy used to support learners as they construct a deeper and more solid understanding of concepts. Just as scaffolding in architecture is temporary, educators hope that by providing temporary extra support, students can then stand on their own as they continue to grow in their understanding of the world around them.

Scaffolding done during scientific inquiry places temporary structure or understanding that allows students to work towards conceptual understanding. Teachers can approach science inquiry in different ways: structured inquiry, guided inquiry, and open inquiry. Each format serves a purpose and ultimately leads students to experience science in a true and meaningful way.

1. Structured Inquiry

Structured inquiry is a great way to begin building foundational learning of scientific practices in a science classroom. In structured inquiry, the teacher establishes and monitors an investigation, providing the focus question, materials, procedures, and methods for data collection. The experience allows students to collect data and synthesize results in a regulated way. Teachers may support students by explaining each step of the procedure before giving the next step, modeling the investigation, providing visuals or graphic organizers to record data, and providing opportunities for discussion regarding processes and outcomes. Using this type of approach at the beginning of the year helps students understand the process of inquiry and models the framework for expectations in the use of science equipment, conservation of resources, and productive verbal interactions.

2. Guided Inquiry

Guided inquiry allows the teacher to be a part of the inquiry process but requires students to build upon that framework with a slightly more independent approach. In guided inquiry, the teacher once again supplies the question for investigation and may provide the materials needed to complete the investigation. However, students are given the opportunity to apply their prior knowledge and design processes to complete the investigation. This interactive approach requires collaboration, an understanding of cause and effect to determine the steps, and the ability to make connections and analyze data to draw reasonable conclusions. This layer offers greater autonomy and student engagement. Once mastered, the ability to design and conduct an investigation of their choosing is just a brainstorming session away.

3. Open Inquiry

With open inquiry, students are in the driver’s seat. They can formulate, design, and complete an investigation that plays to their interests. The foundation provided through structured and guided inquiry situations challenges students to access prior knowledge and experiences and apply them to learn about the world. At this stage, teachers are present to facilitate discussion, monitor safety procedures, and extend student thinking through questioning.

Teachers provide that temporary support to students when they scaffold science inquiry. With the intentional delivery of instruction, each type of inquiry lesson increases the foundational knowledge a student needs to investigate phenomena and the world around them.