What Is Scaffolding Learning Theory?

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The theory of "scaffolding" someone's efforts to learn describes how a learner can be supported to achieve a task or develop a skill. Just as a new building is surrounded by scaffolding poles as it is being put up, so a new learner may need different kinds of support to make progress.

A learning scaffold usually takes the form of verbal pointers---the questions, prompts or clues given by the instructor---but written materials or physical equipment may play a part.


The term "scaffolding learning" was coined in the 1970s by the U.S. psychologist Jerome Bruner, after observing the largely instinctive efforts parents make to support young children in learning to speak, according to the Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in Australia. He noted tactics such as repetition, the asking of questions and the modelling of phrases for the child to complete. Bruner's work built upon that of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who described a "Zone of Proximal Development," an area of learning containing tasks too difficult for a child to master alone, but which could be managed with the guidance of someone more skilled.


Any helpful interaction between an expert and a novice could be described as scaffolding. Providing a child with counting cubes might be seen as scaffolding. But for Vygotsky and Bruner, social interaction, the dialogue between expert and novice, is the most important element. A mother might say to a toddler something like: "What colour is the sky? Blue. What else is blue? Can you see something blue? I can see a blue ... " Her words are all examples of scaffolding the child's learning about colour.

Schoolroom Practice

A teacher's dialogue with a class aims to scaffold the learning with pointers, clues and questions. The scaffolding might also include text, such as a list of instructions, points to remember, a diagram illustrating a process or a paragraph with partially completed sentences that the children need to finish.

Emergent Writing

Scaffolding theory is most strongly associated with development of language skills. For Vygotsky, speaking is the moment at which thought "emerges" or completes. So, in a process of "emergent" writing, the teacher first acts as the child's scribe, taking down what the child says. Later, teacher and child share the composition process and, finally, the child tackles writing tasks independently. The teacher's role changes over time, from recording the child's speech, to giving direct instruction, to prompts, corrections and encouragement, and, finally, to observation.

Social Skills

The dialogue and interaction that characterise scaffolding can help develop the social skills of young children. This can be done through imaginative role-play, structured to give children opportunities to cooperate with their peers, for example by playing at shops. The "New York Times" described the imaginative play program of a school in Red Bank, New Jersey, which gave the children greater self-control and made them more independent learners.


The most important point about scaffolding is that it is temporary. Elements of the scaffolding will be withdrawn by the instructor as the learner gains the knowledge, experience and skills to complete a task unaided. In Vygotsky's words, "What the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow."