Scaffolding for Students

I worked with a group of teachers the other day around using the math exemplar problems in their classrooms.  (yes, me, the literacy gal).  We’ve been thinking and talking about how to provide more opportunities for students to work through the inquiry process and to engage in productive struggle to solve a problem.  But as we observed students working with the open-ended inquiry process, we noticed that many of them were not productive, they were just struggling.  Not what we wanted.

At the same time, we were very aware that these students lacked confidence in their own abilities and they had a school history of having learning “handed” to them.  The children were far more accustomed to direct instruction with guided practice than they were to inquiry and investigation.  We did not want to reinforce that proclivity.  We wanted to support the children and to create that PRODUCTIVE kind of struggling with a challenging problem.

We developed a scaffold of support for them.  We did some struggling of our own as we constructed it.  How could we provide “just enough” support, without over supporting them?  How could be push them to work, but ensure that the work would ultimately be successful and productive?

We decided that we would watch the students closely as they worked.  Together we would attempt to identify signs of productivity.  If, after about 3 minutes, a child was clearly unproductive, we would provide the next level of scaffolded support.  If a child was struggling, but appeared to be engaged in productive struggle, we would leave them at their current level of support and check on them again in another 3 minutes of so.

Here’s what we came up with:


  1.  Give them the problem and no support, nothing — simply read the problem and let the kids go.  In effect, we were providing NO support.  We were just allowing space for the struggle.
  2.  Provide a chart for them to identify the numbers they need to find in order to solve the problem.  At this level of the scaffold, we are providing the children with the “outline” for what they need to find or solve in order to be successful with the problem.  But we are NOT providing the ‘how’ or the ‘what’.
  3. Provide a diagram or picture support to scaffold the students’ thinking. At this point, we are providing the ‘how’ of solving the problem.  We are giving the student the diagram or model that provides the answer.  The child still needs to interpret that model and arrive at the correct answer or conclusion, but the work is right there for them.
  4. Provide the answer and ask the students to work backward to prove why that IS the answer.  At this final level of support, we have given them the actual answer.  They already have the chart and the model (from the previous levels — because we are NOT skipping levels of support with them).  They now have to work backwards and re-construct the answer from all that they have.