The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics



A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.


  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment



Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.


  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

What is on your classroom walls? Why?


A few weeks ago, a middle school in the Bronx that I work with had a visit from their superintendent. She blasted them for their disorganized learning environments, and for good reason: classrooms were cluttered with charts serving little purpose aside from demonstrating the residue of what was once taught.

I also happened to speak recently with a pre-K teacher of children with autism who emphasized the importance of a calm, uncluttered environment for her students. She kept her walls mostly bare. She said that the idea that classroom walls need to have something on them is “old-fashioned thinking”; such educators think that “if I have a lot on the walls, then kids are learning a lot. But it’s more about the teacher than the kids.”

This teacher thinks deeply about what her students need, and she has realized that having very little up on the walls is critical to creating an environment for learning for students sensitive to visual stimulus.

I think at some level most teachers recognize this, when they are asked. At that middle school I mentioned, the leadership and then staff discussed what an effective classroom environment looked like, and the importance of a lack of clutter was raised.

Yet in all too many classrooms, especially in struggling schools, walls are strewn with the bricolage of lessons past. How many of those charts are actively referred to by students?

A small study in 2014 by Carnegie Mellon, as reported by NBC News, backs up the idea that clutter on classroom walls can have a detrimental effect on learning. They found that:

In the sparse classroom, the kindergartners got distracted by other students or even themselves. But in the decorated one, children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment and spent far more time “off task.”

In other words, young children are easily distractable. So putting a bunch of stuff up on the walls will distract them even more. In heavens name, why would we deliberately make it harder for our kids to focus and learn?

And yet in too many classrooms and schools, we do exactly that. We create environments that make it harder for students to focus, rather than easier.

And why do we do that? Because all too often, we put things up for other adults, rather than for our students.

Look at all we are learning!, our classroom walls scream.

The irony: all those artifacts make it harder for students to learn.

Teachers, take an honest look at your classroom walls, and ask yourself: What is on my classroom walls? Why? Who is it for? How often (if at all) do my students refer to what’s there?

Here’s a rule of thumb to combat distraction: If what is up on your wall will not be referred to by your students in the next week or two, then take it down.

Take a picture of it if you want a record of it, or do like one great teacher I worked with did and tape it to a wire hanger and hang it in a closet or on a clothes rack for past anchor charts that you can bring back out as needed.


A Farewell to Fariña


Unless you’ve been stuck in a subway tunnel somewhere for the last few months, you know that NYC Chancellor Carmen Fariña has announced her 2nd retirement, Miami Supe Alberto Caravalho psyched out De Blasio and had an even shorter tenure than Cathie Black, returning to the bosom of weeping Miami-ans before he’d even left (telenovela style), and Houston Supe Richard Carranza has since stepped eagerly in.

Prior to the spectacle, you may have missed an interesting Politico/Shapiro piece on how Fariña operated as NYC Chancellor: This is how Carmen Fariña works: Outgoing chancellor led from inside schools. The piece provides insight into Fariña’s strengths, as well as possible weaknesses.

A while back in 2014, we examined how Fariña was leading from a socio-ecological perspective, and we rated her quite highly at that time.

I think those ratings still hold. Fariña has brought deep instructional and administrative experience to the role, and she has demonstrated many of the traits that we’ve examined as signs of a leader who recognizes the importance of schools as ecosystems, such as:

  • Values inclusion and diversity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  • Consistently observes local conditions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Plays the long game  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  • Models active listening (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Applies intensive management (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Displays a willingness to try different things (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Utilizes the principle of obliquity (1, 2, 3)
  • Sweats the small stuff (1, 2, 3)
  • Demonstrates humility (1, 2)
  • Facilitates the confrontation of the brutal facts (1, 2)

Yet I think, too, her administration has demonstrated some of the downsides of a few of these aspects when operating a system as vast and complex as NYC’s.

Take “consistently observes local conditions.” As Shapiro’s article highlights so well, Fariña’s great strength as a leader is her ability to step foot into a school and see what’s going on and speak from her expertise as an educator.

Yet in operating a system as vast as NYC’s, it doesn’t make as much sense to attempt to direct the system from such supervision alone. As Shapiro points out in the article, despite all of the visits she’s conducted in her tenure as chancellor, she still has only been “inside fewer than half of the city’s 1,800 schools.”

Fariña’s theory of change, as articulated in this piece, seems to be that she and her superintendents will ensure better outcomes in NYC schools by visiting schools.

I think there’s sound logic to this–it aligns with the idea that context is key and that stepping foot in schools is essential to see past the numbers–but what I find interesting is that at no point have I heard this theory of action clearly articulated by either the Chancellor or her administration.

I find this problematic because if we are talking about a theory of action, we are acknowledging that it’s a hypothesis, and that we need to keep checking to see if it’s accurate. This is fundamental in the administration of a public system — the public needs to know what is happening so they can hold the administration accountable.

Under Joel Klein, the theory of action that governed his administration was pretty clear — by breaking up the ‘fiefdoms’ of the districts and empowering principals and holding them accountable, student outcomes would improve. You could disagree with this theory of action and how it was implemented, but at least you knew what it was.

Under Fariña, it has not been so clear what her theory of action has been.

Klein’s strength as a chancellor lay in systems thinking, but his weakness was lack of  experience and expertise as an educator. It might be said that Fariña flip-flopped these strengths and weaknesses.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that overseeing NYC’s vast and diverse system of schools is a tremendous challenge, and we are fortunate to have benefited from the deep dedication and service of Carmen Fariña.

Will NYC’s new chancellor be able to balance systems-level strategy with ground-level expertise?


NY Education Officials Make the Wrong Move on Charter School Teacher Induction


The New York state education department has filed a lawsuit to block a controversial new rule allowing certain charter schools to certify their own teachers, claiming that the regulations will “erode the quality of teaching” across the state.

New York education officials move to block rules allowing some charter schools to certify their own teachers, Monica Disare / Chalkbeat NY

I find this to be a highly questionable move by Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and state education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. And the only way I can make sense of it is that they feel threatened by charter networks and want to exert greater state authority over charter autonomy.

Let me preface my argument by sharing my view of charter schools, since it is such an apparently contentious area of our politics. I work for and believe in NY public schools, and I do not buy into the ed reform narrative that public schools are all failing and charter schools should supplant them.

But I also don’t buy into the opposing narrative that charter schools are “privatizing” education and destroying public education. Or that they only “cream” high achieving students in order to derive mind-boggling results.

There are practices and operations from the charter sector that are incredibly valuable, and there are charter networks and schools that are doing incredible work serving their communities and students that should be scaled and emulated, especially here in NYC. And at this point in the game, the research on the charter sector in general is pretty darn convincing — unless you’re only reading Diane Ravitch’s or Valerie Strauss’s blog, in which case you’re the education equivalent of Trump watching Fox & Friends.

Highly effective charter operations have built an infrastructure around teaching and learning that can accelerate student learning. In too many public schools, we leave teachers and administrators on their own when it comes to communicating and supporting what effective instruction looks like. We all too often give them vague platitudes, complex compliance rules, and abstract concepts and then say, “Here, go apply this! Good luck!” and blame them when our initiatives don’t garner the results we expect.

That’s why I believe charters have their place alongside district schools. Their relative autonomy provides them with the leeway to develop more direct and intensive on-the-ground supports. And we should be learning from the best of them, just as we should be learning from all of the best of our schools that are performing contrary to expectations.

At the same time, I believe charters should be regulated, and that it’s the state’s prerogative to do so.

So Rosa’s and Elia’s pushback makes kneejerk sense in that they feel the need to exert state control over the charter sector in order to ensure positive student outcomes—which they are ultimately responsible for, regardless of the type of school.

But in the long-term, it really doesn’t make sense when you consider that NY’s charters are already well-regulated, and that the charter networks already in operation, such as Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP, Democracy Prep, and Success Academy, have a demonstrated track record of success.

These are networks that have extensive infrastructure built around instruction and accountability. They can take a new teacher with no certification and accelerate their ability. And if that new teacher doesn’t demonstrate results, they’ll get rid of them. That’s what being a charter school provides the leeway for.

So let them take unexperienced and uncertified entrants into the profession and develop them. And then when those new entrants get tired of having all their time drained away with few benefits from the charter school they’re working for, they’ll move into the public system with some solid training and experience.

Let’s be honest. Charter networks will probably do a far better job of preparing new teachers than the majority of our state’s certified teacher preparation programs. And this will be of ultimate benefit to the learning of NY state’s children, which our state officials can then take credit for.

Listen to the music: Some things are universal

Vivek Pandya, a 12 year old, slaying the tabla at the Ragas Live festival in 2016.

A central argument posited by this blog is that context matters. In order to truly understand a school as an organization, you have to account for the physical and social factors of that specific school.

This argument pushes back on the dominant narrative in ed reform that schools are more or less comparable, and if not universally comparable, then at the very least, by grouping according to “peer groups” by similarities in demographic inputs, such as free-and-reduced lunch or ELL populations.

Yet there is a risk, too, in taking such an argument too far, and claiming that local context is everything — and that meaning can therefore only be determined subjectively by those who exist within that local context. Such an extreme argument would suggest that there are no universal statements that can be made about schools.

We can see this play out with music across the world. Is the meaning of music solely determined by the culture that produces it? Or are there traits of music that are universal?

Interestingly, cognitive psychologists side with the latter (universal), while ethnomusicologists fight for the former.

A recent study suggests that ethnomusicologists are being too precious, and that there are universally recognized traits of music. At the very least, people from across the world can identify whether a song made by a small-scale society is a lullaby, dance, made for healing, or an expression of love.

Similarly, I think there are universal traits and principles of effective and ineffective schools that we can discuss. So while I stress—and this blog hinges upon—the importance of acknowledging the strong influence of local context, I also don’t want to take that argument to an extreme.

Context matters—I believe much more than we generally recognize when it comes to schools and many other things—but it’s not everything.

A Study Suggests That People Can Hear Universal Traits in Music, Ed Yong / The Atlantic

The Historical Legacy of Place


We’ve spoken here often about the need for a long-term perspective in education reform, as well as explored the concept of hysteresis.

A recent study,Towards Conceptualizing and Empirically Examining Legacy of Place: An Exploratory Consideration of Historic Neighborhood Characteristics on Contemporary Dropout Behavior” provides a novel look into such a perspective by examining the historical legacy of neighborhoods and how that legacy relates to inequality.

We argue that legacy of place is formed through historic economic and racial residential segregation, which influences economic and social status resource allocation in the present day. . . . School segregation influences the amount of social capital resources available to a neighborhood, which contributes to the existence of clusters of high poverty and high dropout rates among neighborhoods with low levels of social capital.

After testing their theory through multiple analyses, the authors found “that students living in legacy neighborhoods had over 16% higher odds of dropping out of school compared to their peers not living in these types of neighborhoods.”

“these findings should provide inertia for the creation of policies that address the lasting influence of historic neighborhood racial and economic segregation. Such polices may help to equalize racial educational outcome gaps considering minorities are more likely to reside in legacy neighborhoods compared to whites.”
This wider context is critical to bear in mind, especially in light of another recent study that challenges the benefit of in-school integration. As reported by the NY Times, “In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate,”Nicole Mader, the co-author of the study, said the lingering achievement gap demonstrates that just having different kinds of students together in the same building is not enough to have true integration.”
Indeed. It’s bigger than that. It is the historical legacy that have led to segregated neighborhoods that must be actively fought.
But school diversity, even when it’s not enough, is at least a step in the right direction.



Shifting from Single to Twofold Vision


Seeing a school as an ecosystem is akin to shifting from a “single vision” to a “twofold vision,” as William Blake outlines it and Philip Pullman explains it:

. . . when it comes to vision, we need to be able to see contrary things and believe them both true: “Without Contraries is no progression” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), despite the scorn of rationalists whose single vision rejects anything that is not logically coherent. Blake was hard on single vision:

Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God uskeep
From Single vision and Newtonssleep!
(“Letter to Thomas Butts”)

Fourfold vision is a state of ecstatic or mystical bliss. Threefold vision arises naturally from Beulah, which, in Blake’s mythology, is the place of poetic inspiration and dreams, “where Contrarieties are equally True” (Blake, Milton). Twofold vision is seeing not only with the eye, but through it, seeing contexts, associations, emotional meanings, connections. Single vision is the literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected view of the world characteristic, apparently, of the left hemisphere of the brain when the contextualising, empathetic, imaginative, emotionally involved right brain is disengaged or ignored.

William Blake and Me, Philip Pullman / The Guardian

We ain’t shooting for ecstasy nor poetic inspiration here, necessarily—not when it comes to school improvement. But if we can begin to see the wider complexity of connections and contexts beyond the linear machinations of everyday humdrum mundanity, then we might be getting somewhere.

A few things about segregation

I can’t even keep up with all the discussion, critiques, and calls for desegregating our public schools — and that’s a good thing.

Errol Louis calls out limousine NYC liberals on MLK Day:

Today’s festival of liberal self-congratulation, in which members of New York’s establishment pat one another on the back, actually isn’t very King-like. To truly follow in the great man’s footsteps would mean summoning the courage to tackle the same issue he fought and died for — unraveling our city’s web of segregated housing and schools.

Honoring King would mean finally pressing for passage of a City Council bill, bottled up and ignored in past years, that would require boards of the city’s 300,000 cooperative apartments to abide by the fair-housing laws and provide applicants with the reason they were accepted or rejected.

A citywide housing lottery that gave equal preference to people based on need rather than zip code would begin to break down the city’s segregated patterns. A lawsuit has been filed by the Anti-Discrimination Center, a civil rights organization, but the progressive de Blasio administration is fighting the case tooth and nail.

Our pro-segregation progressives, Errol Lous / The Daily News

Even if you develop affordable housing in a currently exclusive neighborhood, it you don’t address the social processes that lead people to sort themselves into those neighborhoods, it’s pointless. You have to address those social sorting processes as well.


These uncomfortable facts are often lost in school desegregation thinking. Too often, integration activists propose feel-good solutions to segregated schools that run aground on the sturdy self-interest of privileged white families. If we hinge a desegregation effort on white families’ good intentions, altruism, or willingness to change their minds … we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t work.

Some Practical — If Uncomfortable — Solutions to the Stubborn School Segregation Mapped Out by Vox, Conor Williams / the74

The NY Times editorial board calls for NYC Mayor De Blasio to fight the segregation of the city’s schools.

Some Bright Hopes for New York City Schools, NY Times

The real problem of teacher shortages: retention

Our research revealed no obvious, simple way to improve teacher retention. The differences in retention rates that we saw across districts are not explained by easy-to-observe factors such as student demographics or teacher salaries. But related research shows that teachers leave schools with poor working conditions where they feel they cannot have success with their students, and they stay in schools where they feel supported by their colleagues, their principals and their school culture. Working to build more supportive school environments can both help students and ameliorate the retention crisis plaguing some of our urban school systems.

Other View: America’s teacher shortage can’t be solved by hiring more unqualified teachers / Times-News

The Tale of Two Schools Revisited

Back in 2014, NY Times Magazine published a piece called “The Tale of Two Schools,” recounting a program to bring together students from Fieldston—an elite private high school in Riverdale—and University Heights HS—a public school in the South Bronx.

I remember this piece because it was one of the texts we used in a unit of study on segregation in NYC.

The latest “This American Life” podcast returns to this program, exploring it from the perspective of students involved in the program from both schools, asking the question, “What impact did this program actually have on the perspectives of the students many years later?”

It’s a powerful and thought-provoking episode. Give it a listen here.