Scaffolding balance


Goldilocks and math instruction. There is a connection.

A recent article co-authored by a teacher and an education professor explored the sweet spot of providing support during a math exploration. Rachel Dale and Jimmy Scherrer describe finding the right amount of support by looking at two extremes and finding the “just right” level in between, like Goldilocks eating porridge that was neither too hot nor too cold. They give detailed examples of providing too much and too little scaffolding in a exploratory lesson on fractions, before landing in between, on what they call “productive struggle”—

The right amount of scaffolding: Productive struggle

This approach of Goldilocks discourse is an example of productive struggle (Kapur, 2014). The key to making student-struggle productive is providing the right amount of scaffolding.

Source: Goldilocks Discourse — math scaffolding that’s just right | Kappan Common Core Writing Project

This is a good concrete example of an earlier Balance Challenge, that of providing support and encouraging independence. You can read the original post on that here.

scale support-independenceProviding supporting through scaffolding is necessary, but too much and students aren’t free to make mistakes and draw their own conclusions.

And we do indeed need to step back and encourage their independence, but stepping back too much leaves students to flounder.

Like Goldilocks finding the not-too-big/not-too-small chair, find the scaffolding sweet spot to help your students achieve productive struggle, where kids learn best.

Teacher Balance—Support and Independence


hands upA student raises her hand.
Teachers: What do you do?

Do you run over to help immediately, carefully taking time to walk her through every part of what she’s working on?

Or do you tell her, “No questions – try it yourself first”?

As with most questions, the best and most accurate answer is: it depends.

Teachers want to provide support to students when they’re confused, but they also want to encourage independence so they develop skills to problem solve themselves. How does one do both? First let’s look at the dangers of the extremes—if you only do one or the other:

Only Providing Support

It’s crucial to provide support for students, especially when they are learning new content, or when a particular student is struggling.


Providing Support

So should you run over to help students at the first sign of a question? Not necessarily…

If a teacher provides too much support, students can become reliant on them. They can develop a dependency on your help and not develop the skills to tackle challenging work on their own.

For this reason, you may want to be careful about situations like this:

  • If you help students every single time they ask for it – they may never learn to problem-solve
  • If you give third, and fourth… and fifth chances when not handing in homework – they may never learn to take responsibility
  • If you swoop in at the first sign of disagreement and solve the group’s problem – they may never learn to resolve peer conflicts

To avoid enabling students, teachers shouldn’t solve their every problem in every instance. Sometimes you need to foster independence. Let’s look at this more closely.

Only Encouraging Independence

So we’ve learned it’s crucial to encourage students to be independent. Have we found the answer to the hand-raising problem: just let them figure it out themselves? Not so fast.


Encouraging Independence

If you expect too much independence—and don’t provide support to achieve it—students don’t learn how to become independent. They can flounder in their confusion or frustration, not knowing where to start or what to do next.

So you can’t always expect students to figure our problems on their own. Think twice about things like this:

  • If you refuse to answer questions – students won’t know you’re there to help them when they’re genuinely stuck
  • If you give directions once and only once – you leave out students who need more time to process, and your directions just may not have been clear in the first place!
  • If you expect students to organize everything on their own – they lack models of essay outlines and notebook sections to know what organization can even look like

So we don’t just throw students into the deep end of the pool, as they may flail—and fail—without appropriate support. Let’s now look at a balanced approach.

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