A study to explore the potential of designing teaching activities to scaffold learning: understanding circular motion

cover Effective Teaching and Learning

Taber, K. S., & Brock, R. (2018). A study to explore the potential of designing teaching activities to scaffold learning: understanding circular motion. In M. Abend (Ed.), Effective Teaching and Learning: Perspectives, strategies and implementation (pp. 45-85). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

This is one of two chapters (see the previous blog) in this book considering the theme of scaffolding.


Scaffolding tools?

The idea of scaffolding is often use in discussing how teaching supports learning. However, scaffolding has some rather specific requirements: it must allow a learner to achieve something they could not yet achieve unaided, but in a way that supports their development towards a level of mastery that does not require support. Sounds simple!

Support that simply makes something that is already within a learners’ competence easier is not scaffolding. Support that helps someone to do something they would not be able to do otherwise does not count as scaffolding if they still cannot do this alone once the support is removed. So offering the kind of support which is genuine scaffolding requires some careful judgement, and in particular for teachers to know their students – and their current abilities and potential for progression – well.

Fair enough, as teachers are generally intelligent, insightful and resourceful people- and ready to take up the challenge. But of course what I have described is a teacher supporting a learner: in a class or 25, 30, 40 learners there are 25, 30 or 40 individuals. Each learner has a certain level of current competence, and a particular potential to move on (which is sometimes labelled (after Vygotsky) their ‘zone of proximal development‘, ZPD), and specific characteristics as a learner – levels of confidence, self-belief, and so forth. The job of a teacher is to somehow support all these individuals so they can all be working within their own idiosyncratic ZPD.

The teacher can only do so much to individualise support by moving around the class talking to the students, and this raises the question of how readily teachers can provide learning resources which act as scaffolds (not just supporting students in completing tasks, but moving them along in the learning). I looked at two types of scaffolding resource (labelled scaffolding PLANKS and POLES) some years ago (Taber, 2002), but always felt it needed more attention.

I designed a resource intended to support student learning in one topic area,  understanding the nature of circular motion (that many students see as natural and unaccelerated motion) and some teachers kindly agreed to test it with their classes. Then analysis sat on hold due to too many other priorities, until Dr Richard Brock kindly agreed to join the project and lead on the analysis. This paper reports on this work.

The trial consisted of students in classes responding to one of two forms of a sequence of questions to see if those given a task intended to support developing understanding would increase their performance on a related task (compared with a control condition including a task of similar structure, but less pertinent to the learning objective). I won’t spoil the story(!) for anyone who wishes to read the chapter, but very briefly it seemed the materials were not ideally pitched for many of the students in the trial (many seemed to need greater support) but there was evidence of the resource helping some learners. Most of those completing the activity made little or no progress in their learning, but a minority seemed to be moved on quite a bit.

This simply reinforces the point that if support is to be scaffolding it needs careful tuning to different students. The study offers some kind of proof of concept for the type of resources tested, but reinforces the message that such resources need to be carefully designed, and then adjusted/matched to different student groups (i.e., within as well as across classes).

Bottom line: scaffolding tools can support learners as part of a strategy of differentiation by support.


Without whom…

Thanks are due to the anonymous teachers and students who helped by trying this out.


The abstract:

Scaffolding allows a learner to succeed in tasks beyond their current developmental level, through sharing in activities that can facilitate the learner to internalise that activity through social mediation. This guides the learner’s development towards autonomous success in the activity. The process is effective to the extent that the shared activity supports the learner in meaningfully engaging in, and eventually mastering, the activity. The notion of scaffolding was introduced in the context of a single child being supported by an adult who is giving them their full attention – where teaching, and so learning, can occur implicitly within the context of everyday interactions such as play. Extending the principle of scaffolding to the planning of teaching and the design of learning activities in formal whole-class contexts is challenging. The present paper reports one small scale study that explored an attempt to design materials using principles of scaffolding in an aspect of upper secondary physics known to present learning difficulties to students. An activity to potentially scaffold new conceptual understanding (a scaffolding POLE) was prepared to be undertaken after a short activity to reactivate prerequisite learning (a scaffolding PLANK). The materials were administered to students (n = 122, c.16-17 years of age) taking an elective upper secondary (high school) physics course. The results demonstrate the difficulty of estimating the level at which to pitch learning materials intended to scaffold learning, but also suggest that such materials may contribute to shifting student thinking even when they are not optimally ‘tuned’. The results of this small-scale study indicate both the difficulty and the potential of transferring the scaffolding principle from dyadic (e.g., parent-child or tutor-single student) contexts to formal classroom teaching.



Taber, K. S. (2002) Chemical misconceptions – prevention, diagnosis and cure, London: Royal Society of Chemistry


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