Want to watch a master teacher at work? Spend a few minutes watching a mom play with her one-year-old on the floor.
She’ll choose a toy that might interest her child, and she’ll place it within reach. If the toy is difficult for her child to manipulate, she’ll hold it in a way that makes it easier. If the child does something successfully, she’ll point that out and celebrate. If the child starts to lose interest, she’ll show the child something new about the toy.
This mom is doing what learning scientists call scaffolding. In its seminal review of learning science, the National Research Council highlighted scaffolding as one of the most effective and powerful teaching strategies out there.1
Only learners can do the hard work
Only learners can do the hard work of learning; parents and teachers can’t really do any of it. Only learners can feel the desire of wanting to accomplish something new. Only learners can watch someone demonstrate something, and then try it themselves. Only learners can decide to try again after their first — and fifth — attempt fails. Only learners can try a new way, building on a hunch they’ve developed through their efforts.
But what parents and teachers can do is to scaffold learning, which means to make subtle changes to the environment and to mediate the relationship between the learner and the environment. Whether learners are 1, 17, or 75 years old, scaffolding is powerful because it makes learning a little bit easier.
How parents scaffold learning
As the National Research Council describes:
Scaffolding involves several activities and tasks, such as:
- Interesting the child in the task;
- Reducing the numbers of steps required to solve a problem by simplifying the task, so that a child can manage components of the process and recognize when a fit with task requirements is achieved;
- Maintaining the pursuit of the goal, through motivation of the child and direction of the activity;
- Marking critical features of discrepancies between what a child has produced and the ideal solution;
- Controlling frustration and risk in problem solving; and
- Demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.
Just watch the mom of a 1 year-old…
Scaffolding can be characterized as acting on the motto of ‘Where before there was a spectator, let there now be a participant.’2
So, as you support your child, at any age, think about how you can scaffold learning. Direct instruction has its place, but most of the work comes in the form of setting up the environment and interacting with your child so that it becomes easier and more rewarding for them to do the hard work of learning.
For inspiration, just watch the mom of a one-year-old.