Monday, July 19, 2010

Educational Scaffolding

Educational Scaffolding
By Patrick Martin

Most of us are familiar with scaffolding. It’s that erector set type structure that can be seen at almost any construction site. Scaffolding is often erected to provide structure and a workspace while building a new wall, but then it is removed after the “real” wall is finished. Educational scaffolding is similar. It’s about putting structure in place temporarily to make learning a new concept easier.

When we learn something new, we need to attach it to things we already know. When a student is taught a completely new concept, they need a frame of reference in order to assimilate the new data, or else it will be very difficult to remember. The goal of scaffolding is to either help them identify where they can attach this new data or give them a fun and exciting new place to attach it.

Examples of scaffolding, or lack thereof, are easy to find. For instance, I have a child who can pull up every bit of info about any Pokémon instantly but, this same brilliant child has trouble remembering which property of addition is commutative and which one is associative. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with Pokémon, trust me, it’s complicated.) Why is that? Because when she was taught the properties of addition, there was just no place to store that data. It was free floating around her brain and therefore it evaporated out as quickly as it came in.

So, how can scaffolding help? Well, the first trick in scaffolding is to “activate previous knowledge.” That’s education-speak for, “Relate it to something they already know.” My daughter knows the words “commute” and “associate.” When I pointed out that the properties are named from these base words, it became much easier for her to remember which was which. Take a look at the first paragraph of this article again. I was “activating your previous knowledge.”

A second way to build scaffolding is to create a new place to attach the data. Give the student an engaging experience or a new idea to hang the concept upon. My son drove across the US with his Grandmother this summer. The trip provided a wealth of experiences that can be used for scaffolding. For instance, I think he will be able to easily conceptualize the power of moving water to cause extreme erosion when it is related to the view from the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

So, when shopping for supplemental material to help teach a new concept, it helps to think outside the box. Perhaps you don’t need a book that is about exactly the same topic you are teaching. The publishers of the series I write for (My Favorite Things) have noticed that the books in the series which directly reflect curriculum topics (like My Favorite Ancient Civilization) sell much better than the more recreational topics. I am suggesting that the “fun” topics may contribute just as much to your students’ education through scaffolding. Take, for instance, My Favorite Spacecraft, which outlines the evolution of human spaceflight. The book discusses how advances in space technology were driven by the Space Race, which was one aspect of the Cold War. This book could provide a nice jump-off point to enable students to grasp a rather difficult topic, the Cold War.

The next time you are struggling with how to teach some tough material, consider using scaffolding to help your student reach for that lofty goal. Perhaps well chosen supplementary material can provide the needed frame of reference to store that new data.

Patrick’s My Favorite Things Books can be found herePatrick Martin is a private math tutor (online and face-to-face), a homeschooling Dad, and a writer. He and his wife are homeschooling their 15 year old daughter and 12 year old son. Patrick has a BS in Electrical Engineering and is licensed to teach math. After 5 years as a computer professional and 10 years as a stay-at-home, homeschooling Dad, Patrick is enjoying his re-entry into the paid workforce. To learn more about Patrick’s passion to help and encourage those who struggle with math, check out Catherine’s blog about adjusting to a stay-at-home life after leaving medicine due to chronic pain can be found at

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