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.

NY State passes legislation allowing dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia to be targeted

Pile of Invoices, Man Using Laptop on the Background

“Gov. Cuomo just signed into law a measure codifying federal protections permitting the words dyslexia, dysgraphia (which affects writing ability) and dyscalculia (affecting mathematical processing) to be used in determining eligibility for special education services and developing Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs.”

This legislation matters. Before, educators were discouraged from using specific terms such as these when writing IEPs, even when the evidence was clear that a child struggled in one of these areas. I think this is a step forward in better targeting children’s needs.

That said, however, I also have some hesitation about the use of these terms.

1) Many IEPs are written with few (relatively) objective data points as a reference. Most schools don’t have sophisticated enough assessments to be able to make a diagnosis that is so specific. As I have always cautioned parents at an IEP meeting, we are making an educational diagnosis, not a medical diagnosis. But when people start throwing around terms like “dysgraphia,” it sounds officially sanctioned, like it’s the pronouncement of a doctor, when it’s really just a supposition made with little background nor training on assessing and supporting these specific disabilities. And it may also end up promoting some learned helplessness on the part of both teachers and students when they start labeling general academic difficulties with these terms.

2) Another problem with such terms is their lack of specificity. There’s debate about whether dyslexia even exists. Having worked with students with all three of these conditions, I can assure you it definitely does. But you shouldn’t have to take my word for it. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to uncover more knowledge about such conditions. For example, it appears that dyslexia is related to trouble with phonological processing which stems from a reduced plasticity of the brain.

The difficulty, however, is that even when we apply more specific terms like “dysgraphia,” it’s still not very clear about what exactly needs to be done to address the issue. We know that early intervention is essential, but what does one do with a dysgraphic student in 8th grade? Teachers (and parents) would love to know what that medicine should be.

3) What if a student demonstrates all three of these things (dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia)? We often end up just labeling them LD (a “learning disability”) and leaving it at that. But this begs the question of whether it is then even a disability at all. It may be a compounding of socio-economic factors, environmental factors, and a lack of access to early interventions and support.

But at the end of the day, whatever the cause, and whatever the label, is all less relevant than what is being done once the label has been applied.

What will we do to support children identified as struggling mightily with reading, writing, and math? And is what we’re doing actually helping? That’s the most important thing.

Finally getting serious about educating kids with dyslexia, NY Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon in the NY Daily News

Smorgasbord: Back to school pep talks and charter accountability

It’s back to school week in New York. As teachers and students dust off their summer-laden books and brains, they head back under the increasing haze of chaos and uncertainty that Trump and his rich minions have ushered in as they slice and dice regulations and public services and norms and institutions willy nilly.

Yet there may be one thing that the Trump “administration,” if you can call it that, is right about when it comes to protections of the children of undocumented immigrants: it really should be on the shoulders of Congress to pass legislation, rather than be based on the whims of the Executive office. Look to advocates from both sides of the aisle to begin applying pressure to Republican legislators to actually create legislation for once that will work for the American people, rather than further subdivide them.

Sara Mead gives ed reformers a pep talk

It may be more comfortable to believe that educational outcomes are fixed and there’s little we can do to change them – but it’s also a moral failure.

Progress Over Pessimism, US News

Are students of color over- or under-identified as having a disability?

A researcher is pushing back on the conventional narrative, which has been formed around raw numbers. Controlling for poverty and academic achievement skews it the other way.

What’s left out this conversation is the fact that kids in the US are over-identified in general, in comparison to top performing countries, with little performance gains to show for the additional money and services.

Many worry that students of color are too often identified as disabled. Is the real problem the opposite?, Chalkbeat

Even when identified, students of color in poorer communities may not receive services

The city’s data show students from underserved districts in the south Bronx and Brooklyn are most likely to be deprived of the services they need to learn in comfort and safety.”

NYC denies nearly 9,000 kids with disabilities the services they need, NY Daily News

Oklahoma prioritizes oil companies over the education of its children

Just goes to show you what happens when you prioritize short-term interests over that of the long-term. A lesson for America.

Big Oil, Small Schools, US News

John King suggests that actual leadership from Department of Ed would be nice

“The department spokeswoman said Moran asked DeVos for ‘any resources we may have,’ and in response, officials provided a seven-page readiness and emergency management guide drafted by the department to specifically address Charlottesville.”

A readiness and emergency management guide? King slams Devos for her tepid tweets and bureaucratic response:

“The job of education leaders, whether it’s secretary or state chief or superintendent, is to every day be a voice for equity and civil rights protections, and we haven’t seen that from this administration.”

John King: DeVos, Trump Administration Not Doing Enough After Charlottesville, US News

Sony envisions a future of AI harvesting student data off a blockchain

“In the future, Sony believes student data can be analyzed using artificial intelligence to suggest improvements to specific educational institutions’ curriculum or management.”

Sony and IBM Team Up to Make Education Data More Secure – and Easier to Share — with Blockchain System, The 74

Bullying on social media is a real problem. Maybe it’s time to hold those platforms accountable like we hold schools accountable


Most schools–you know, the ones that care about their children–stick their noses in kids’ private business because that’s where all the trouble happens. But as bullying increasingly moves into online spaces, where it’s more difficult for nosy administrators and teachers to monitor, maybe we need to start applying more pressure to those platforms to actively monitor the activity of minors.

This is a part of a bigger problem–that we’re increasingly ceding both our private and public lives to private platforms that are unaccountable to the public.

New Teen Survey Reveals Cyberbullying Moving Beyond Social Media to Email, Messaging Apps, YouTube, The 74

Can you imagine if this was the culture of school districts?

Elon Musk sends a message to his employees about the problems with communication as a chain-of-command:

“Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission.”

Sure would be nice to work in an organization like that!

This Email From Elon Musk to Tesla Employees Describes What Great Communication Looks Like, Inc

How schools are governed determines their effectiveness

One has to look beyond the averages to see the truth: In states where charter authorizers close or replace failing schools—a central feature of the charter model—charters vastly outperform traditional public schools, with students gaining as much as an extra year of learning every year. But in states where failing charters are allowed to remain open, they are, on average, no better than other public schools.

What matters is not whether we call them charter schools or district schools or “innovation schools” or “pilot schools,” but the rules that govern their operation.

David Osborne, in the introduction from his book, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System; To Save Public Education We Must Reinvent It, The 74

Because charter systems with no accountability can be devastating for children

Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse.

Michigan Gambled On Charter Schools. It Lost., NY Times

And we should not give up on public schools, because it’s not only about performance — it’s about serving our democracy

Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole.

Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake., The Atlantic

CREDO and Clown Shows have equal weight in education world

…the larger problem is that chaos is a ladder and too many people in the education world see a clown show article by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post and an RCT or CREDO analysis as all having equal weight.

Great Moments For School PIOs, State ESSA Reviews, Buried Voucher Ledes, Charter Funding, Success At Success, RCTs V. Credo, Screaming Armadillos! Much More…, Eduwonk

The problem with special education

Learning Disability | Learning Disability Stock Photo When u… | Flickr

There’s a problem with special education in the US. Marc Tucker tries to get down to the bottom of things

“The most likely explanation is that the very act of formally designating a student as a special education student lowers the expectations for that student’s performance held by everyone whose expectations count: teachers, parents, the student and their peers.”

I think Tucker’s hypothesis bears some truth. From my own experience as a special education teacher, I’ve seen how the label introduces its own set of psychological burdens. And we have a lot of kids being labeled who are simply struggling with academics, but not with any overt “disability” that can be clearly discerned.

“Far from suggesting that the top performers should learn a thing or two from us about helping special education students, we should be learning from the top performers how to keep students who do not truly need it out of special education by doing what they are doing to enable them to reach high standards in the first place.”

So how do other countries keep students out of special education?

“The top performers provide far more support than the U.S. does to families with young children—everything from cash awards to nutritional assistance to pregnant women to very long and well-supported family leave for fathers and mothers to universal, high-quality child care and early childhood education. But it does not stop there. It also includes a higher ratio of teachers to students in schools serving low-income, minority students; extra funds for schools serving large numbers of vulnerable students; coordinated social services; strong incentives for their best teachers and principals to serve in schools with large proportions of vulnerable students; more time for students who need extra time to reach high standards; close monitoring of student progress to make sure that students who start to fall behind get the help they need to catch up quickly and more time for teachers to work one-on-one and in small groups with students who need extra help.”

Reading this list, it just seems so common-sense, doesn’t it? Yet the tragedy is that there is little political will nor ideological support for these kinds of investments in the US. You start saying this kind of stuff too often, you get labeled as some kind of socialist or union shill. The reality is that when it comes to things like public education and social services, the people in the US who have the money and/or power to make things happen are most interested in things that sparkle and that offer the promise of a quick fix.

Yet Tucker also provides an interesting point in his conclusion, when he brings up the outlier in special education labeling, Finland, which labels upward of 38 percent of their kids:

“In Finland, they solved the problem by simply saying that many kinds of students need special help. Some may be gifted and some might have a hearing or vision problem. Some might need one-time-only help and others might need continuous help. In Finland, most students get “special education” help at least once in their school career. Because that is true, there is no stigma. Every school has a “special education” teacher trained to provide a wide range of special help to the students in that school who need it. This is an idea worth conjuring with.”

This definitely bears promise. In fact, this is how the special education team at my former middle school began approaching services. We recognized just how much of a stigma being labeled “special ed” had on kids, so we set about rebranding our work. We called ourselves Student Support services–because at some point, every student needs some kind of support.

Sounds a lot more positive, doesn’t it? Maybe special education as a system needs to be rebranded in this way.

Have We Got Special Education All Wrong?, Marc Tucker on Huff Post

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.