9 Powerful Ways to Scaffold Learning in Science
When I first started teaching, whenever I heard the phrase “scaffold learning” (which was a lot), my New York brain immediately conjured up images of those metal structures that darkened a slice of the sidewalk.
In all my years in New York, with the thousands of scaffolds I’ve seen and scurried under, I never really understood their purpose. While I always thoughts those scaffolds were for my protection; they weren’t.
I like this definition of scaffolding by Flyability: “A scaffold, also called scaffolding or staging, is a temporary structure that allows people to stand on a stable platform for work at height or in hard-to-reach places.”
We can apply this definition to scaffolding learning in science. We can view an instructional scaffold as temporary supports (structures) that allow students to access grade-level content (work at height) that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access (hard-to-reach places).
In this blog post, we’ll explore what it means to scaffold for teaching, examples of scaffolds, the importance of scaffolding for English Language Learners and students currently performing below grade level, and how to implement a strong scaffolding strategy in your science classroom.
What is Scaffolding In Science?
Effective scaffolding supports students in learning challenging science content, language, and skills. By providing structured support and guidance, scaffolded instruction can help students learn new content, develop new skills and language, build confidence, and achieve greater success in their learning.
While there are different ways to scaffold learning in science, successful scaffolding involves breaking down complex scientific ideas and skills into smaller, more manageable steps, providing guidance and support, and gradually reducing that support as students become more proficient and independent learners.
What Scaffolding Isn’t
In the “trial by fire” manner through which many teachers get their experience, mistakes abound. One of my biggest scaffolding mistakes was not truly understanding the definition of scaffolding.
Unfortunately, I understood scaffolding and differentiation to mean providing students with what they could access, even if it was below grade level.
Learn from my mistakes. Scaffolding is NOT giving students watered-down work that is far below grade level. For example, using texts that are below grade level is not scaffolding.
While text sets with different Lexile levels are often easily accessible for teachers, giving our students below grade level texts hinders their academic growth. It also further widens the achievement gap that exists for students from historically marginalized groups.
No matter the content, skill, or activity, ALL students should work toward mastery of the same learning objectives. ALL means students performing at grade level, students with special needs, students performing below grade level, and students who are learning English — ALL students.
Here are some other things scaffolding is not:
- One-size-fits-all: Scaffolding should be tailored to the specific needs of the students and the subject being taught. There is no one “right” way to scaffold learning.
- Permanent: Scaffolding should be gradually reduced and removed as students become more proficient and confident in their abilities. The ultimate goal is for students to become independent learners.
- A replacement for instruction: Scaffolding is a complement to instruction, not a replacement for it. Teachers still teach, facilitate, and support students in mastering objectives.
- A Crutch: In fact, I view it as the opposite. Scaffolding is an instructional approach that compliments rigorous instruction and high expectations. Without access, there is no rigor. Therefore, the concept of scaffolding makes rigorous, grade-level content accessible to students, regardless of their current reading levels or English language proficiencies.
The Importance of Scaffolding Instruction
Scaffolding instruction is important because it helps students develop the skills and knowledge they need for independent learning. A strong, intentional, and well-executed scaffolding approach does the following:
Helps students build on prior knowledge: Scaffolding allows teachers to connect new information to what students already know, helping them build on their prior knowledge and understanding.
Makes learning more accessible: By breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps, scaffolding makes learning more accessible for all students, regardless of their skill level or background knowledge.
Fosters independence: Scaffolding gradually reduces the level of support provided to students, allowing them to take on more responsibility for their own learning over time. This helps students develop the independence they need to be successful learners.
Increases engagement: Scaffolding helps students stay engaged in the learning process by providing them with the support they need to be successful. This can help students feel more confident in their abilities and more motivated to learn.
Improves learning outcomes: By providing students with the support and guidance they need to learn new concepts and skills, scaffolding can improve learning outcomes and help students achieve greater success in their academic work.
How Do You Scaffold a Science Lesson?
Let’s explore the ways to scaffold a science lesson.
1. Leverage students’ prior knowledge: ALL students enter our classrooms with prior knowledge and experiences. Building upon students’ prior knowledge as well as experience from their own lives is a powerful scaffold through which students can more effectively attach new knowledge.
According to EDweek.org, When we activate and build students’ background knowledge:
- Students see the connection between previous and current learning
- We establish a set of conceptual “hooks” on which students can “hang” new learning.
- Students get on the same page with us.
- We receive formative-assessment data we can use throughout the learning experience.
2. Use of graphic organizers: Graphic organizers are visual aids that help students organize their thoughts and ideas. Examples can include, but are not limited to, t-charts, Venn diagrams, concept maps, and word webs. Here at Lit Science, we strongly believe the best graphic organizers are customized to the learning and specific activities and tasks of a lesson.
3. Modeling: Essentially, modeling is when a teacher demonstrates how to complete a task or solve a problem, showing students step-by-step what they should do. This is a powerful scaffold that is easy to implement. Not only does it help students to complete a related assignment either with their peers or on their own, but it also sets the expectation for the quality of work the teacher expects.
4. Chunking: One of my favorite times to use chunking is when teaching students how to read complex texts. For English Learners and students currently reading below grade level, multiple pages of long, dense text can be overwhelming. This overwhelm can manifest as shutting down and checking out or behavior issues.
Chunking involves breaking text, activities, and/or new content into smaller chunks that are more manageable for students. When chunking a text, I like to place text-dependent questions at the end of the chunk rather than at the end of the entire reading.
5. Differentiation: Different students need different things. Therefore, differentiation and scaffolding go hand in hand. Teachers tailor instruction to the needs of individual students, providing additional support for those who need it and challenging those who are ready for more advanced work.
6. Cooperative learning: Encouraging students to work together in pairs or small groups provides opportunities for peer support and collaboration. For English Learners and students developing their academic vocabulary, collaboration allows students to practice and apply their new learning in a low-stakes way before having to demonstrate mastery in a high-stakes format, such as a summative assessment.
7. Use of Home Language: If grouped with other students who speak the same home language, students should be encouraged to use their home language during discussions and practice their new learning. While it’s okay to expect students to write their answers or present in English, research shows that the use of home language actually strengthens students’ English.
8. Sentence starters and frames: Providing sentence starters or frames can help English Learners and developing writers express their ideas in writing or in oral discussions. This can lead to enhanced participation.
9. Visual aids: English Learners may struggle to understand new concepts presented in English. Using visual aids such as pictures, diagrams, or videos can help ELs better understand the content.
These are just a few examples of instructional scaffolding techniques teachers can use to support their students’ learning. By providing the appropriate level of support, teachers can help their students develop the skills and knowledge they need to be successful learners.
Scaffolding and Amplification
Scaffolding and amplification are two teaching strategies that can be used together to support student learning. Scaffolding involves breaking down complex tasks or concepts into smaller, more manageable steps and providing support and guidance to students as they work through each step.
Amplification, on the other hand, involves expanding or building upon students’ existing knowledge and understanding. In other words, amplification provides students the opportunity to practice new material, content, language, and skills.
The relationship between scaffolding and amplification is that scaffolding can provide the foundation for amplification. By breaking down complex tasks or concepts into smaller steps and providing support and guidance along the way, scaffolding can help students develop the skills and knowledge they need to engage in more complex tasks or concepts.
Once students have mastered the foundational skills, teachers can use amplification strategies to build upon their existing knowledge and understanding, challenging them to think more deeply and critically about the content.
Scaffolding and the Next Generation Science Standards
Scaffolding instruction aligns closely with the principles and goals of The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGSS emphasizes an inquiry-based approach to science education, promoting the development of scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.
Scaffolding can effectively support the implementation of the NGSS by helping students engage in these practices and develop a deep understanding of scientific concepts. Here’s how scaffolding connects with the NGSS:
- Developing scientific practices: The NGSS emphasizes the development of scientific practices such as asking questions, conducting investigations, analyzing data, and constructing explanations. Scaffolding can support students’ development of these practices by providing guidance, modeling, and gradual release of responsibility as students engage in scientific inquiry.
- Building conceptual understanding: The NGSS encourages students to develop a deep understanding of core disciplinary ideas. Scaffolding can help students build this understanding by breaking down complex concepts into smaller, more accessible parts and providing support as they make connections between different ideas.
- Connecting cross-cutting concepts: The NGSS emphasizes integrating cross-cutting concepts, such as patterns, cause and effect, and systems thinking, across different scientific disciplines. Scaffolding can help students identify and apply these cross-cutting concepts by providing explicit instruction, visual representations, and examples.
- Engaging in engineering practices: The NGSS incorporates engineering practices alongside scientific practices. Scaffolding can support students in engaging in engineering design challenges by providing clear instructions, offering design constraints, and facilitating collaboration and reflection.
Examples of Scaffolding in a Science Lesson
At the beginning of the school year, I like to start with a simple icebreaker game with students. This game helps me to get to know students and for students to get to know each other. It also exposes students to my expectations and classroom routines and helps to build a positive classroom culture from day one.
Even this lesson, a fun, low-stakes game, is scaffolded. Let’s walk through the scaffolding moves I make in this activity.
1. Use of Customized Graphic Organizers: The activity packet (graphic organizers/worksheets) contains the entire lesson. Everything students need to engage in the activity (including writing their responses) is right there on the page. This means students can focus on the activity rather than worrying about scribbling down notes while the teacher or their classmates speak.
2. Differentiation: Because I always had a heterogenous classroom of students with different needs, differentiation is a must. This activity packet has two separate versions. Both versions get students to the same objective; however, the scaffolds they’re given to get them to reach the objective are different.
3. Visuals: While both versions contain visuals, one of the versions was created with English Learners in mind. Therefore, that version contains visuals throughout (including embedded in the directions).
4. Sentence Frames: In one version of the worksheets, students have sentence frames to facilitate discussion with their peers and to answer the reflection questions at the end of the activity.
5. Collaboration: This activity is collaborative. Students talking to and getting to know one another is at the heart of the activity. Rather than the teacher standing at the front of the class asking students questions, one by one, students take the learning into their own hands by working with one another.
6. Activating Prior Knowledge: This activity centers around students’ prior knowledge and experiences. Before students collaborate, they work independently. Also, if we’re thinking of the larger unit, I’m not starting the first day of school with complex chemistry. Instead, I’m empowering students by starting with something that is low-stakes and familiar to them.
Not only does this help to create a positive classroom culture, but I’m also allowing students to start with something they know and understand to get them comfortable before moving onto the more complex content.
7. Use of Home Language: While the entire packet is written in English and students are required to write in English, students can make meaning of the tasks and the directions in whatever language they choose (if they are grouped with peers who speak the same home language).
8. Chunking: Each part of the lesson appears for students in chunks. Therefore, students can approach the activity in chunks organized in small steps that get students to the objective of the lesson.
In conclusion, scaffolding instruction in the science classroom is a powerful tool for empowering students, promoting deeper understanding, and fostering scientific inquiry.
By providing targeted support and guidance, you can create a learning environment where students can confidently tackle complex scientific concepts, language, and develop critical thinking skills.
Scaffolding allows teachers to meet students at their individual levels and bridge any gaps in knowledge, ensuring that all learners can actively engage with the curriculum.
Whether it’s through the use of visual aids, breaking down complex tasks, providing models, or encouraging collaboration, scaffolding instruction helps students navigate the intricate world of science.
As with most effective teaching strategies, the scaffolding process takes time. While the goal is for all students to have access to grade-level, rigorous content, this goal should not come at the expense of every waking hour of your personal time and your mental health.
Let Lit Science support you in providing grade-level resources, worksheets, activities, and lesson plans that are scaffolded and differentiated for diverse learners. Check out our resources here.