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Scaffolding – A Platform for Learning

Using scaffolding to build independent learning in Secondary Science

A new BlueSky module, Scaffolding Secondary Science, considers how to enable all students to progressively move towards greater independence and understanding during the learning process through purposeful scaffolding. In this blog, Ally Sousa explores how to develop scaffolding strategies in your classroom. 

Construction of Meaning

Scaffolding and differentiation are often used interchangeably, since they both have a similar goal in bridging gaps in order to help learners make progress. However, the way they are implemented in the classroom differs greatly. When delivered effectively, scaffolding enables a student to become increasingly independent in the learning process until they no longer require support. It usually involves the teacher breaking down a concept into smaller parts before helping pupils grasp each of these parts [1]. Teachers then build upon pupils’ prior learning to help them gradually tackle increasingly complex tasks. This is planned at curricular level when long and medium term planning takes place.

In contrast, differentiation is where lessons are adapted to the needs of individuals within the classroom, to enable them to experience success where the scaffolding of tasks either means the task is too complex for the individual, or that the scaffolding means the task is not challenging enough for them. Differentiation may involve having different learning objectives, activities or resources to support the learner [2]. This will occur more frequently within the short term planning phase where the needs of the individuals are taken into account for each lesson.

The Foundations

Scaffolding was first referenced in terms of an educational approach by David Wood, Jerome Bruner and Gail Ross in their paper on The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving, written in 1976. Here scaffolding was used to describe a process which enables a novice to be successful in a situation which would otherwise be beyond the individual’s unassisted efforts [3]. The prominence of scaffolding was however researched much earlier. Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist and social constructivist, first referred to the importance of appropriate assistance from a ‘more knowledgeable other’ in his work on the Zone of Proximal Development in the 1920s [4]. An understanding of this work is highly beneficial for educators to understand how scaffolding can impact pupils’ learning.

Vygotsky made reference to three zones:

ZAD – Zone of Actual Development. This describes a learner’s current capabilities and what they can achieve without support. Working in this zone can lead to boredom.

ZPD – Zone of Proximal Development. This describes a learner’s capabilities which are just beyond their current competence, but where they are able to be successful with support. Working with suitable scaffolding in this zone can be engaging.

ZDD – Zone of Distal Development. This describes the stage where capacities are considerably beyond the individual’s current competence and where success is not possible even with high levels of support. Engaging in tasks set in this zone can be frustrating.

The diagram below illustrates the potential that a planned activity has for development of new capabilities and the level of support that is required for success in each zone. As we would expect, we can also see an inversely proportional relationship between the level of support required and the potential for the individual to contribute successfully to a group activity.

Potential for activity to contribute to development of new capabilities

Level of external support needed for success (scaffolding)

Potential for individual to contribute to group activity:


  • Mastery – can support others
  • Competence – can make substantive unsupervised contributions
  • Apprentice – can make useful, supported contributions
  • Novice – can make minor contributions with close supervision
  • Interested observer – at best, familiarising with activity
  • Bemused/ Confused – making little sense of activity

Building Learning Power

Scaffolding can have many advantages in helping to support the development of pupil confidence and competence in the classroom. When we consider Vygotsky’s concept of ZPD, it is clear to see how the correct level of support can help learners feel empowered rather than frustrated and overwhelmed. For students who find the task unachievable despite scaffolding, or who perhaps develop competence sooner than their peers, and therefore find the task too easy, differentiation can then be put in place to assist or extend. Whilst putting scaffolding in place is vital, it is just as important that the scaffolding is gradually removed as the learner progresses, allowing them to accomplish the task without assistance [5]. By considering Vygotsky’s work, it is possible to visualise how learners can move between zones. Once they have accomplished the task without scaffolding, their capacities would be in the ZAD and further challenge is then needed to maintain engagement. Failure to remove scaffolding, or leaving it up too long, can lead to learners becoming reliant on the support, or bored and off-task. In contrast, removing the scaffolding too early, or making the task more complex without suitable scaffolding, can lead the learner into the ZDD which may result in frustration and avoidance.

There are many ways that learning can be scaffolded. To support teachers of secondary science, BlueSky is pleased to be launching a new module ‘Scaffolding Secondary Science’. This module has been developed by Dr Rebecca Glass, a former science teacher and now Senior Education Manager at M3. Session one focuses on chunking learning and finding the optimum level of task difficulty, whilst session two focuses on practical scaffolding strategies and examples of how these can be applied in the science classroom. Click here to watch the Taster and learn how you can start to implement these strategies in your classroom today.

Key Take Aways:

  • How to facilitate learners in the optimum level of difficulty ie the ZPD
  • How to chunk learning to prevent overload
  • Practical scaffolding strategies that can be applied to the science classroom


[1] Resilient Educator. “Using Instructional Scaffolding Strategies in Teaching | Resilient Educator.” ResilientEducator.com, 2 Oct. 2012, 

[2] Hasa. “What Is the Difference between Scaffolding and Differentiation – Euresisjournal.org.” Euresisjournal.org, 20 Apr. 2021

[3] Wood, David, et al. “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 17, no. 2, 1976, pp. 89–100, 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1976.tb00381.x.

[4] Taber, K. S. (2018). Scaffolding learning: principles for effective teaching  and the design of classroom resources. In M. Abend (Ed.), Effective Teaching and Learning: Perspectives, strategies and implementation (pp. 1-43). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

[5] Gonulal, Talip, and Shawn Loewen. “Scaffolding Technique.” The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 18 Jan. 2018, pp. 1–5, 10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0180.

Discover more BlueSky Learning Knowledge modules here

Tamsin Denley

Author: Ally Sousa
Content Specialist, BlueSky Learning

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