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.

Therapeutic Learning Environments

At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.

. . . At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

. . . As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma.

–James Redford and Karen Pritzker, “Teaching Traumatized Kids” on The Atlantic

Social-Emotional Learning Starts with Adults

“Out of control” , by Erik Pevernagie, oil on canvas

A whole-school approach to [Social-Emotional Learning] means that all the adults in the building — not just teachers and principals, but lunchroom monitors, bus drivers, librarians, and specialists — have to be invested and on the same page with SEL. In their own interactions, as well as in their work with students, adults should model the type of behavior they want their students to exhibit . . .

So while regular professional development can teach adults the nuts and bolts of integrating SEL into the school day, one more step is crucial to a successful program: Ensuring that adults develop their own social-emotional capacities. “Our approach has shifted towards supporting the adults’ own social emotional needs, addressing the stressors they may be experiencing as professionals in education.

—Rebecca Bailey, as reported by Leah Shafer, “What makes SEL work?” on Usable Knowledge

More on the need for adults to have the capacity for modeling self-control: Learning and Teaching Self-Control

Even stable relationships are steeped in conflict

By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains. The very term symbiosis has been twisted so that its original, neutral meaning – ‘living together’ – has been infused with positive spin, and almost flaky connotations of cooperation and blissful harmony. But evolution doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t necessarily favour cooperation, even if that’s in everyone’s interests. And it saddles even the most harmonious relationships with conflict.”

—Ed Yong, “Microbes have no morals” on Aeon

Now think about education politics. Or school relationships between staff and admin, or adults and students.

A Successful Online School is Based On Relationships

By Arnoldius (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons
“Students do the bulk of their learning independently. They make their own way through online lessons, digital texts and multimedia, and follow links to extra, explanatory resources. They upload all their work. Yet the students and parents interviewed for this story said that they have more one-on-one interactions with teachers than they did in traditional schools.”

—Chris Berdik, “Inside the Online School That Could Radically Change How Kids Learn Everywhere” on Wired

Unsurprisingly, one of the few virtual learning schools that demonstrates success is predicated on forming relationships between teachers and families. The competency-based aspect of its curriculum is also intriguing and worth keeping an eye on.

For students with disabilities and other students for whom more traditional schools can present significant obstacles, this form of learning holds great promise.