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  • karinhessvt

To scaffold or not to scaffold? The first big misconception about rigor.

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

[Originally published by Renaissance Learning]

Think back to the last really rigorous and complex task that you worked on. Did you develop and complete it from start to finish all on your own? Or did you, perhaps…talk with colleagues, look at models, seek out related information or examples from experts, and/or develop drafts and get feedback on your work before you felt satisfied that you had fulfilled expectations? Over two decades ago I heard Dr. Howard Gardner make a comment that has stayed with me all these years: “Every complex task in life is a project and we rarely - if ever - do them alone.” I think the point he was making then, and one that has been supported by cognitive research since that time, is that we can tackle much more complex tasks when we work on them with others, than if we work on them alone – especially when we are learning HOW to do those tasks (Hess & Gong, 2014). So why is it that educators seem to hesitate to provide some form of scaffolding when presenting students with more complex and rigorous tasks? Trust me when I say this, it’s not cheating! It’s just good instruction to scaffold for deeper understanding.

First, let’s define what I call "strategic scaffolding"

Scaffolding is NOT the same as differentiating. Generally, when we differentiate, we offer choices to students to do different, and often comparable assignments. We can differentiate the content (different texts), the processes used (how you work with the content), or the products students produce as evidence of their learning.

Scaffolding is about supporting all students to successfully complete the same, rigorous assignment. There are several forms that scaffolding can take. Scaffolding can come from teacher, peers, content presentation, task (such as breaking it down into manageable parts to support executive functioning), and materials that support thinking and analyzing the content. The purpose of strategic scaffolding is to provide support during learning in order to gradually remove the support when learning becomes solidified or when the learner becomes more independent and able to transfer learned skills to new situations. This is why it’s often referred to as “scaffolded instruction.”

Types of scaffolding

o Teacher and peer scaffolding: More support is provided with the initial introduction of new concepts, tasks, or thinking strategies (e.g., developing a mathematical argument) and then gradually removed over time: peers read and discuss together, challenging each other’s ideas/solutions, or collaboratively solve complex problems in more than way. Guided think-alouds are another example of teacher scaffolding.

o Content scaffolding: Less complex versions of the content/concepts are introduced before more challenging (deeper or broader) ones are tackled, such as using paired texts to first build background knowledge before a more complex text is introduced.

o Task scaffolding: Multi-step complex task processes are broken into smaller steps (basic skills in isolation, applying skills in routine tasks, problem solving with less complex content) and practiced before more challenging tasks (performance-based) or new applications are expected.

o Materials scaffolding: Use of non-print (audio, video, kinesthetic) texts, graphic organizers, study guides, and embedded visual cues (e.g., color coding parts of an essay, chunking texts for annotation) support students in uncovering predictable patterns in texts or problem-solving contexts.

Use of scaffolding is generally considered an effective teaching practice for all students, and there is a great deal of research to support the use of scaffolding for learners of all ages and ability levels. In a large research study I was involved with several years ago in Georgia, we tested out the hypothesis that the lowest performing students would perform better on state assessments if test items were “scaffolded” for greater access (Hess, McDivitt, & Fincher, 2008). While the content of test items was not changed, enhancements were added to some test items that might trigger recall leading to deeper thinking. For example in reading, the same text passages for grade 5 were still expected to be comprehended using the same test questions, but passages were “chunked” with less complex questions (DOK 1 - who, what where, etc.) coming earlier than questions about main idea (DOK 2) or theme (DOK 3). In mathematics, the same math content and procedural skills were tested, but “hints” or models were sometimes provided to help students mentally access organizational or conceptual schemas.

The scaffolding enhancements in no way negated what was being assessed; but did result in 2 key findings: (1) student engagement and confidence increased during test taking; and (2) many students performed at higher levels than they had in the past.

Some effective ways to enhance mathematics test questions

1. Add a Hint: Use visual cue, such as a thought balloon with…

· Definition of a key term (A mean is a kind of average.) or provide a Synonym

· Provide a clear, less complex example

· Procedural prompt: “What is the rule you use when you see…?”

· Provide a reminder of the correct formula

2. Provide a scaffolding enhancement that helps students organize or break down information before completing multi-step problems:

· Add a T-chart or graphic organizer to help students locate and organize key information – these should be customized for the problem, not a generic table with too many boxes. During instruction, students work with peers to develop an organizer to better articulate what’s being asked in a problem or are asked to decide which diagram or organizer will work best, and why.

· Add sub-questions or steps to break up/think through multi-step problems before solving

1. Circle the question you need to answer. Now say it in your own words ("I need to compare how two students did this problem so I can decide who did it correctly.")

2. What symbols and key words in the question tell you what to do? (e.g., “all together” means to add)

3. Underline information needed to answer the question

4. Brainstorm several was to represent the problem (graph, labeled diagram, table).

5. Brainstorm several possible strategies you can use to solve the problem.

During instruction, these kinds of cues can be placed on “hint cards” made available to students if needed. "Hints" are simply be what a teacher might say, but are used to encourage students to seek the help they need and “figure it out” more independently.

Rigor, Depth of Knowledge, and Scaffolding

The most common misconception I hear about rigor/DOK goes something like this: all students cannot think deeply, young students cannot think deeply before they have “mastered” their math facts, or students don’t need help to get to deeper thinking. I say, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Here is what some of the research says:

ü Engaging in “a complex task” with supports/ scaffolding is an essential step along the way to proficiency: Think “Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development/ZPD” – social interaction, group problem solving, and meaningful mathematical discourse will move students from what they can do today with help to what we want them to be able to do tomorrow, independently.

ü Do that challenging task with others first: DOK 3 tasks (e.g., using calculations, diagrams, and more than one approach to develop a mathematical argument) and DOK 4 tasks (e.g., class projects that integrate math and science) are not meant to only be done alone/independently, especially at first.

ü Oral language and meaningful discourse that supports reasoning (in response to questions like: Why do you say that? Can you provide some evidence for that? Would you like to change your thinking about that? Why?).

ü Small group discussions and problem solving provide simultaneous engagement – ALL students are talking and thinking. Whole class discussions should be minimized and used for groups critiquing groups. Don’t let the class ‘workhorses’ do the thinking for everyone!

One easy strategy: Plan questioning and formative probes from DOK 1-2-3-4 over the course of a lesson or unit of study. Consider all DOK levels in your planning, even if you don’t use all of them in the lesson/unit. Sometimes start with the larger, more interesting and challenging question; other times start small, but end BIG (meaning deep).

A Sample RANGE of Analysis Tasks, Organized by Depth of Knowledge [DOK] Levels

[DOK 1] What information is presented in this data table?

[DOK 2] Organize your data to identify some patterns or trends.

[DOK 3] Which data support your solution or reasoning? Explain your thinking.

[DOK 4] Analyze 3 data sets. What conclusions about____ are supported with data?


Hess, K., McDivitt, P., & Fincher, M. (2008) “Who are those 2% students and how do we design items that provide greater access for them? Results from a pilot study with Georgia students.” Paper presented at the 2008 CCSSO National Conference on Student Assessment, Orlando, FL. Tri-State Enhanced Assessment Grant: Atlanta, GA.

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