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differentiation assessment, instruction, mathematics, teacher preparation

Scaffolding from 10,000 feet

A friend of mine went skydiving for the first time.  She never jumped before so her first jump was tandem.  This process allowed her to enjoy the experience of jumping without the stress of having to remember everything to do.  It can take 25 times of tandem jumping before a student can jump alone.

Tandem jumping is similar to teaching.  The first time we teach a concept our students might be at the 10,000 foot level.    We might need to model each step and explain the process and ask good question to get at the big ideas.  Students just like skydivers also need multiple instances of support and practice before they do it alone.

What makes a tandem jump and teaching successful is the way we build the experience so that students and jumpers feel success.  Success is experienced when students feel like they can accomplish the task, when they have the support that is needed to work independently and most importantly when they enjoy the process.

That is where scaffolding comes in…

For a teacher with a class of 25+ this can be a very challenging task.  That is why data-drive planning and knowing your learner is essential.  Tasks that build in scaffolding give students a cushion they may need to work through a task before they can jump alone.

Take for example a first grader learning to add.  You might have students who have automaticity with basic facts, and others who still need a visual model to add independently.  Knowing this you can build an activity like using playing cards to make addition facts where some students can add without counting the symbols on the playing cards and others can use this as a scaffold.


Teachers can also creating learning activities that will help support scaffolding in more cognitively demanding tasks. Take for example students who are working towards writing an essay about “How do the three branches of government work to create a checks and balance system of government?”


Having students create a foldable as a previous learning activity that will support scaffolding more complex activities like the writing prompt above supporters learners with embedded knowledge and skills that allow them to work independently.

Jumping into teaching without identified support and scaffolding is like taking your first jump without an instructor to show you the ropes.  We need to design instruction with this in mind so that our students can be successful and enjoy the learning process just like my friend enjoyed her first jump.

How do you scaffold instruction for students in your classroom?


About Dr. Dickenson

I am an assistant professor of Teacher Education at National University in San Jose.


One thought on “Scaffolding from 10,000 feet

  1. Hi Dr. Dickenson,

    I appreciate your analogy likening scaffolding learning to tandem skydiving. I use scaffolding in the classroom with my students to help them grasp a new concept quicker. In Social Studies, we begin a new lesson by adding onto a GPERS Chart. This chart has the components of a civilization across the top, ‘G’ being Geography, ‘P’ being Political, ‘E’ being Economic, ‘R’ being Religion, and ‘S’ being Social. I model filling it by suggesting my own additions, and asking for theirs. I write in their suggestions, and then they take it home to add more on to it as they do the homework for that lesson. I am giving them a tool that I have showed them how to fill out, helped them fill out, and it is something that they can keep using to assimilate new information about each new civilization that we study.

    I can see why knowing your learner can lead to more successful and challenging scaffolding. You need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are before you can design a help scaffold. With mathematics, for example, it would be essential to know where the students stand in achieving the learning goals for a unit so that you can design scaffolding that will help them reach the goals.

    Thank you!

    Nicole Huckaby Green
    Student Teaching Seminar


    Posted by Nicole Huckaby Green | October 31, 2016, 9:05 pm

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