What is a scaffold, anyway?
While working on a series of workshops about scaffolding, I came to a revelation about what the term really means. It’s one of those words, like “differentiation,” so ubiquitous in the field it seems to mean almost anything. But such generality can easily lead to some big misconceptions in actual application. I’m going to share my learning here in the case it may be useful and help others to avoid some of those missteps.
In order to truly understand scaffolding, I think you need to be able to answer this question:
Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?
Furthermore, I think you need to understand what it takes to master a parachute landing fall at the army jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Mastering a Parachute Landing Fall
For a reading that serves as a great basis for a team discussion on rigor, assessment, or scaffolding, I urge you to read Chapter 4 pg. 69 – 71 of Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Read the whole darn book while you’re at it, of course; it’s all good. But I found this particular chapter especially relevant to scaffolding.
Since I obviously can’t reproduce the chapter for copyright reasons, I’ll give you an executive summary. At the army jump school in Georgia, mastering a parachute landing fall is a necessity. The jump school supports and drives recruits to mastery of this extremely complex and difficult skill within three weeks. How do they do this?
First, recruits initiate their practice in a gravel pit. They receive demonstrations of different falls. Then they practice falling and they receive feedback and they practice some more.
Next, recruits move to a short platform a couple feet off the ground. They practice jumping off the platform and executing the falls they had mastered in the gravel pit.
The challenge is ratched up. Recruits move to a zip line and practice falling from a higher drop that’s propelling them in different moving directions. They can control when they drop off the line.
You see where this is going. The recruits move to a platform 12 feet off the ground. They put on gear and jump down a mock chute, connected to a zip line. But this time the instructor pulls the cord and introduces the element of uncertainty and surprise. Recruits now have to be able to demonstrate a PLF according to chance, simulating the variables of an actual fall.
Finally, they move to a 34 foot tower. This is the final step of demonstrating mastery before boarding a moving airplane and engaging in a real-world application of the skill.
There’s some aspects of this narrative that illuminates effective scaffolding:
- Each step provides practice and feedback on a component skill that requires mastery before moving on
- Practice grows increasingly complex and difficult
- At no point is the practice easy
- Practice serves simultaneously as performance-based assessment
There’s a term that the authors of Make It Stick introduce that is useful for this progression of increasingly rigorous steps: desirable difficulty.
Desirable Difficulty, Academic Rigor, and Scaffolding
Desirable difficulty, a term coined by psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, is a way to describe short-term impediments that lead to stronger learning. At the army jump school, you can see desirable difficulty in action, and it highlights key aspects of effective scaffolding and how it connects to academic rigor.
At each successive step of training, the recruits are engaged in practice at a level of desirable difficulty required for them to master each successive component skill. Once they’ve mastered that skill or set of skills, they are then ready to move to the next level.
This is important to highlight for a few reasons. One is that it’s clear that at no level is the work and practice “easy.” A common misapplication of scaffolding is that it makes work easier for a student. This might make the teacher and student feel better about themselves, but it does long-term damage to student learning.
But a well-designed scaffold should not make a task or concept easy. Rather, it should provide the right level of impediment and challenge for the level of practice in the skills or concepts required to move forward.
This means that instructors can have extremely high expectations for students, as the army jump school has for its recruits, while providing well-structured practice and guidance that will lead to achievement that matches those expectations.
It also means instructors must be crystal clear about the component skills and practice that will build successively and sequentially to mastery.
Scaffolding as Performance-based Formative Assessment
“It’s one thing to feel confident of your knowledge; it’s something else to demonstrate mastery. Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgement of what you know how to do. When confidence is based on repeated performance, demonstrated through testing that simulates real-world conditions, you can lean into it.”
—Make It Stick
There’s another aspect of scaffolding that is really interesting to consider from the jump school example: effective scaffolding is a performance-based form of formative assessment. Formative assessment, for those of you not up on the ed jargon, simply means testing that occurs during learning. This is in opposition to summative assessment which takes place at the end as an evaluative measure, and is usually accompanied with a grade. In the jump school example, the summative assessment would be executing the parachute landing fall from a plane.
A well-designed scaffold, therefore, engages a student in the practice of a skill that informs the instructor whether the student is ready to move on. This should be immediately visible and clear, enabling the instructor to provide ongoing feedback as the student engages with the scaffold.
Now let’s return to our original question and bring this back to the classroom:
Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?
Let’s break this down. What the heck are “success criteria”?
Success criteria are what you use to assess whether you’ve achieved the goals for learning in a unit of study. You’ll typically see these as a rubric or a checklist. The criteria are directly aligned to standards or expectations for learning for the subject and grade.
As an example, let’s say I’m an ELA teacher and I wanted to assess a third grade student’s ability to determine a central idea of a text. The Common Core Standard for Reading Literature states that by the end of third grade, kids should be able to “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.”
So an example of a few success criteria I might use to assess that student’s progress towards the standard could be:
☐ I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text.
☐ I can determine the details most essential to understanding a text.
☐ I can combine key details to determine a main idea.
Let’s look one of these criteria: “I can distinguish between important and unimportant details in a text.”
Many students will struggle with this abstract skill (not least because they don’t know enough about whatever they’re reading in order to do so . . . but that’s a whole other post). So they will need some type of scaffold to assist them in getting started on this.
So what could such a scaffold be?
One possible scaffold could be to support them in first distinguishing between details that are merely interesting, such as details that an author gives to make the text more engaging to read, from details that are central to understanding the topic of the text.
We might create some type of graphic organizer or chart to support students in practicing this with a text, and of course, we’d probably model it and do it together as a whole class before having students practice it in groups or pairs, then we’d ask individual students use it on their own.
Some students may be ready to just make a T-chart in their notebooks, while other students may need some more guided practice with a handout. Some students may need manipulatives, such as cut outs of both interesting and important details, in order to get started and to feel success before they are ready to move to greater abstraction.
But notice something about my description: the scaffold is less about a graphic organizer, chart, or manipulative, and more about the practice of a specific skill component: clarifying the difference between interesting and important details.
In other words, the point of a scaffold like this isn’t really about the thing — it’s about the thinking that students are training their minds to do through the application of the scaffold.
A scaffold should therefore provide the thinking practice that a student needs to master the criteria for success.
If we just told students to distinguish between the important and unimportant details in an informational text, some might be able to do so, and some will not. The point of the scaffold, in this example, is to train students who don’t yet see it to become aware of the difference between details provided by an author that are merely interesting, versus details that are important to understanding the topic.
Eventually, those students should no longer need a scaffold. They’ll internalize the concept and be able to apply it without thinking. A few students may never need such a scaffold at all. That’s the differentiation piece. If they don’t need it, they shouldn’t be practicing it.
We may think of something like a stepladder or the scaffolding on a building when we use the word “scaffolding.” Or you might think of a bike with training wheels, or a parent holding the bike as the child learns to pedal.
The model of a bike with training wheels is probably closer to the way we should think of what a scaffold means in instruction. We want to shift our mental model of what a “scaffold” is away from it being a tool that merely makes a task easier, to a process or activity that engages a student in the practice that they can experience success with, while on the road to mastery.
What’s the difference? Some students will need to practice a whole bunch using a scaffold before they get it. A few students may not need it at all. But the expectation is that all students will be expected to achieve that mastery.
Which leads us to another realization about what function a scaffold serves. If a scaffold is directly aligned to the success criteria in a unit of study, then it serves not only as a form of practice to achieve mastery, but it furthermore serves as method of formative assessment for both students and teachers. It provides performance-based, task-based feedback on whether or not a student has achieved the success criteria.
So a scaffold does not mean making learning easy. It doesn’t mean giving kids a shortcut so they can reach something they will never be able to reach again. It’s about having rigorous expectations and demanding that students practice in a way that will enable them to achieve those expectations.
A New Definition of Scaffold
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.
Characteristics of Scaffolds
- Scaffolds are smaller components of a complex task or skill
- Scaffolds are at the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice.
- Scaffolds are not “easy”
- Scaffolds must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along until they have mastered each component
- Scaffolds serve as performance-based formative assessment