A building under construction cannot stand wholly on its own. It requires additional support structures to provide assistance and a safe working environment. In the initial stages, a frame, or scaffold, is constructed around the building to provide both this support and a comfortable net of safety. As construction continues, unforeseen weaknesses may be found which require additional scaffolding. Likewise, a section of scaffolding may need to be strengthened due to changes in the building plan or because of the failure to see how the addition of a new element weakens or calls into play a seemingly unrelated part of the underlying structure. Scaffolds are dynamic and are meant to be temporary support structures, so on the other hand, as work progresses and the building becomes more able to stand on its own, sections of scaffolding are removed with the implicit understanding that they can always be reconstructed and put back into place if needed. Of course, one of the final, most thrilling, and perhaps riskiest moments in any construction project is that moment when the scaffolding is removed completely. Will the building stand on its own? Will it function in all the ways it is supposed to? Is there still small detail work which remains to be done? Additional, perhaps unforeseen, work may still be needed, and additional support structures may be required even after the primary scaffolding is removed. A building under construction is a work in progress and can remain such until the day it requires no more than maintenance to keep it whole and functioning.
In one of Vygotsky's loveliest metaphors, instruction is seen as scaffolded support and assistance, and the teacher's role is to provide graded tasks and interactions, allowing students to accomplish activities beyond their scope as independent learners (Vygotsky, 1962). In this metaphor, learners are the buildings under construction, and teachers are the builders and architects, the ones who, with the help of learners, assess the scale and depth of the building project and then work to design and provide the necessary support activities, the scaffolding. In scaffolded literacy instruction, for example, the reading teacher gauges the difference between what comprehension activities students can perform independently and what they can do with the teacher as guide; and then, the teacher designs activities which offer just enough of a scaffold for them to overcome this gap (Pearson & Fielding, 1991). By scaffolding, the teacher controls the aspects of the task "initially beyond the learner's capability, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence" (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Since scaffolds are dynamic and temporary, they are gradually removed as readers gain skill and fluency, leaving them closer to full membership in the literacy club of independent readers of English.
All instruction is scaffolded assistance, and teachers of whatever sort are builders and architects who construct tasks and experiences to provide support for learners, the buildings under construction. In the case of the reading teacher, to go back to that example, teachers may design prereading tasks dealing with vocabulary or structural elements likely to cause problems in an assigned text. Knowing that these things would likely cause "structural failure," the teacher builds support structures for students, hoping that these will allow learners to accomplish something they could not manage wholly on their own--the reading of a text a bit beyond their capability as independent readers. However, knowing that learners come into the classroom as works in progress with perhaps the foundation already in place, the teacher often chooses to design scaffolded tasks which link this completed work with the work to come. In the reading classroom, these tasks may take the form of prereading discussion questions to activate schema and build on real world knowledge or may be activities which call to mind already known reading skills and text types. The scaffolding is constructed, providing both support and a comfortable net of safety, but then is removed, wholly or partially, once readers complete the actual reading task on their own.
If one learner can be seen as a building under construction, then a class full of learners can be seen as a city under construction, one in which each building requires different degrees of scaffolding and support. The moment readers begin working with a text on their own, teachers may find that some learners face difficulties which others do not. Some of the buildings in this city of readers may collapse completely, while others may lean dangerously to one side. Some may experience brief moments of near collapse as they read, while others may finish the task standing upright without need of any further scaffolding at all. It is this moment which I find most interesting and challenging as a teacher.
Working simultaneously with an entire city of learners in various stages of development requires the teacher to have at hand a number of flexible scaffolded support tasks which can be offered as needed. The teacher must anticipate in advance not only which learners are likely to collapse, but also in what ways. This, of course, requires in-depth knowledge of the learners' needs, strengths, and weaknesses, as well as the experience to know just when to take away, replace, or add support. Obviously, this is not a simple thing, but the metaphor of scaffolding helps us to see our role in the classroom in a way that goes beyond the success or failure of a particular activity or class session. It also helps up to see that each student comes to us at a different stage of development, requiring more or less support.
As lovely as Vygotsky's metaphor may be, it falls apart in one essential way unless we understand that learners are intelligent beings who are often aware of their own strengths and weaknesses as well as their own motivations and needs. While instructors may be the builders and architects of the classroom, students share in their own development as works in progress. In the scaffolded reading classroom, for example, the students are free to ask for particular kinds of support and additional input when they feel it is needed. Students are also free to inform instructors when given support they feel is unnecessary or materials they feel have little relevance to their lives or development. Of course, this provides a degree of messiness to the classroom, but it is this central human element which makes the building process so very interesting.
- Pearson, D.P. & Fielding, L. (1991). Comprehension Instruction. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, et. al. (Eds.) Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2. (pp. 815-860) White Plains, NY: Longman.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). E. Hanfman & G Vaker (Ed. and trans.), Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published 1934)
- Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.