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Scaffolding geographical learning

‘With assistance, every child can do more than he can by himself.’

Vygotsky, 1962

Topics on this page:

  • What is scaffolding?
  • How does scaffolding work?
  • What do new teachers need to know?
  • Scaffolding strategies frequently used in geography teaching
  • Questions for reflection
  • Reading and references

What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a metaphor that refers to the support strategies that a teacher provides to help students learn. It is used to help students to access something new or difficult. As a student’s learning builds the scaffolding can be slowly removed. The principle behind scaffolding is that it reduces a student’s cognitive load so they can focus on the essential elements of the new learning.

The idea originates from Lev Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’, which is the difference between what a learner can do independently and what can be accomplished with help. Vygotsky did not use the actual term scaffold; that comes from other researchers such as Webster et al (1996) and Wood et al (1976), as explained by Roberts (2023) p 39. They saw scaffolding as more than just ‘help’, it was a collaborative process that involved teacher intervention and dialogue with the learner. Roberts explains:

‘It is when listening or eavesdropping that the teacher can detect how students understand or misunderstand. In these dialogues of learning, the teacher has to decide how best to intervene to take students’ thinking forward geographically. A simple prompt or probing question might be needed. Sometimes, some teaching might be required.’

Roberts (2013) p 31

  • Refer to Roberts (2023) Figure 3.4: Scaffolding (see below)

How does scaffolding work?

There are some more useful analogies that can help us to understand the purpose of scaffolds. One is a ‘learning ladder’, which breaks down learning into steps and students are assisted to progress up the steps. Another is a ‘bridge’ – to build on what students already know to ‘bridge’ the gap to arrive at something they do not know.

It is important to remember that scaffolds are not intended to make content simpler or easier; the purpose of the scaffold is to help students to gain access. A scaffold should only be used if the task is beyond the student’s capability without it. Webster et al (1996) found that it was not the activities themselves that made the difference but how teachers scaffolded the activities.

In day-to-day geography teaching scaffolding can be spontaneous and informal. For example, if a student is struggling to draw a cross-section the teacher asks a series of supportive questions, and by prompting and probing they talk them through the process to help them through the problem they are facing.

It can also be part of formal teaching, when the teacher demonstrates or ‘models’ to the whole class, for example the use of field equipment or answering an examination question. The teacher may ‘think aloud’ the steps as they are demonstrating the process. Another common form of scaffolding is using writing frames to help with sentence starts or providing a structure for extended pieces of writing.

Scaffolding goes hand in hand with monitoring and assessment. Teachers monitor students’ responses, e.g. through questions, listening and reading their work, and use what they find to make judgements about how much scaffolding students require and what form is appropriate.

Of course, a builder’s scaffolding is only useful while something is being built. Teachers must also judge when scaffolds should be removed. This should be when students are achieving a high degree of success. The aim is that the students become confident and use their knowledge independently, i.e. without the scaffold. The risk is that they become over-reliant on support.

What do new teachers need to know?

The DfE frameworks are specific about what new teachers should be taught about scaffolding. Discuss this with your mentor, observe how experienced teachers scaffold learning and read about different strategies you can use.

As you find out more about scaffolding you will realise it is used all the time in teaching. When a teacher asks a question, they frequently rephrase it or use a follow-on question to lead a student to a successful response. This is a type of scaffolding.

As well as the informal scaffolding that occurs in response to immediate need, you should plan specifically to use scaffolding in a lesson. Plan how you will scaffold your presentation of new information by defining the steps to use when you explain or model new ideas.

Plan any resources you might need to scaffold some students’ learning, such as partially completed examples, prompts, guides, sentence starters or frameworks. Consider how scaffolding can support written or oral tasks that you are planning for a lesson. You will refine your own practice and use of scaffolding as you gain experience.

While scaffolding is most often seen as a ‘prop’ to support learning, it can also be used to extend and challenge. You can use scaffolds to focus a task or to increase the rigour, e.g. by specifying specialist vocabulary to be included.

As you plan lessons, discuss these questions with your mentor:

  • Which students in a class would benefit from scaffolding?
  • What aspects of the intended learning might require scaffolding?
  • What resources would be appropriate, e.g. written prompts, visuals?
  • How do you decide if continued support is needed?
  • How and when should you withdraw scaffolding to ensure you do not use it beyond when it is needed?

Removing scaffolding: Gradually removing scaffolding from activities and tasks allows students to complete activities with greater independence. Knowing when to remove scaffolding is as important as knowing when to use it.

You are doing students a disservice if you allow them to become reliant on supportive structures, or always look to you for answers rather than attempt to work out the solution themselves. Plan strategies to withdraw scaffolding as well as erect it.

  • Read Enser (2016) chapter 3 ‘Removing the scaffolding’.

Scaffolding strategies frequently used in geography teaching

Making use of prior knowledge

A common strategy is for geography teachers to discuss with students their prior learning or to draw on experience from the world outside of school. This provides support for a student when a new topic and new content is introduced.

Brainstorming and mind maps

Activities such as these, and bubble and spider diagrams, are often used early in the teaching of a new geography topic to link the new and previous learning. They can also be used to provide a scaffold or framework for ongoing learning through the topic. Refer to Activities to foster explaining and Concept mapping.

Teacher intervention/discussion

This is the most frequently-used scaffolding strategy. When students are working on an enquiry or task, the teacher takes the opportunity to work with groups/individuals to provide scaffolding through questioning and discussion.

The teacher probes their understanding, challenges their reasoning and explores whether they can explain the geographical ideas and concepts. In doing this, the teacher is scaffolding their learning. Students find it easier as individuals, or in a small group, to voice any problems they might be having.

Peer discussion

Scaffolding need not always be teacher support. Groups can be carefully chosen with a view to providing peer-support and by getting pairs to work together.

Pre-taught vocabulary

A useful scaffolding strategy is to frontload the teaching of geography-specific terms and new vocabulary early on in a topic. In subsequent activities and lessons students use this vocabulary and build a fuller understanding of its meaning in different geographical contexts. This is a more supportive approach than dealing with new vocabulary retrospectively and compiling a glossary.

Time for talk

Students need time to process new geographical ideas and information and it helps if they can verbally make sense of new ideas by talking about them with their peers. Teachers that halt a class explanation or discussion to give time for structured talk such as ‘think-pair-share’ are using a form of scaffolding.

Help sheets

These can be a checklist, briefing sheets, worked examples or vocabulary sheets etc. Such ‘scaffold resources’ can be made available to specific students who need them, or if students request them.

Grids and frameworks

In geography we use a variety of grids, forms and charts as scaffolding tools, for example:

  • Diagrams and graphic organisers, such as flow charts, can help students to visually represent their ideas. These help students to organise information and grasp concepts such as sequencing and cause and effect.
  • Questioning grids or the 5Ws are scaffolds that are used for asking questions (see Students’ questioning skills).
  • An outline diagram, e.g. the water cycle, to which students add labels and explanations.
  • The development compass rose uses headings as a scaffold to help students to structure their data collection, interpret a photograph or analyse text.
  • Writing frames provide starter sentences for paragraphs to give students’ writing a structure.
  • Vision frames and layers of inference are scaffolds for analysing photographs, maps or text. See Layers of inference and In the picture.
  • Argument and counter argument grids, see Argument in geography.
  • What different kinds of scaffolds would you use to support students when they are learning a new concept, examining photographs, debating an issue, explaining a process or writing a report? What evidence do you have that these scaffolds work?
  • Audio-record a questioning episode in one of your lessons. Reflect on:
    • how you use questions and your responses as scaffolding
    • the way you invite students to add to, elaborate, clarify and challenge the input and responses of other students.
  • Could scaffolding restrict rather than enable students’ learning?

Reading

  • Bustin, R. (2017) ‘Teaching a good geography lesson’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Associationchapter 11 pp. 140-1.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing, chapter 3.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 4.

References

  • Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
  • Webster, A., Beveridge, M. and Reed, M. (1996) Managing the Literacy Curriculum. London: Routledge.
  • Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. (1976) ‘The role of tutoring in problem solving’, Journal of child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 2, pp. 89-100.