Scaffolding Lessons that Work

Scaffolding seems complicated, but it’s really not

By Scott Sterling

Most educators subscribe to some sort of notion that lessons should be scaffolded. The concept goes by many different names and forms (gradual release, various taxonomies, and even Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching), but the constant is the (correct) idea that students should walk before they run.

Last month, we ran a post about planning a college and career-ready lesson that touched briefly on the concept of scaffolding, but today we’d like to go a little further. How do you actually organize tasks in a way that doesn’t leave students behind, bore the students who could be working ahead, and basically make sure everyone learns at maximum capacity?

Creating a scale

The first step is to figure out where you want students to go during the course of the lesson, which requires a study of the standard that you’re seeking to address. We call that process “unpacking the standard” and we’ve already written in depth about how that works. To make a long story short, figure out the knowledge and tasks the standard would like the students to learn. For our purposes here, we’re interested in the tasks in particular.

Once you’ve figured out those target tasks, it’s time to think of the steps that will get the students there, based on the taxonomy of your choice. For example, if you engage in this process using Marzano’s Art and Science of Teaching, ask yourself four key questions that align with Design Questions 1-4:

  • DQ1: How will I communicate rigorous learning goals, track student progress, and celebrate success?
  • DQ2: How do I help students interact with new knowledge?
  • DQ3: How do I help students practice and deepen new knowledge?
  • DQ4: How do I help students generate and test hypotheses?


The cool thing is that those steps are easily converted into the scale you’ll use to assess student learning. The scale measures students’ progress as they move through your scaffolded lesson.

Remember, scales are not a secret; students should know just as well as teachers where they fall on the scale at any given time. Johnny Student should know that he is currently only able to identify an author’s purpose in a piece of text; he has yet to be able to write purposefully himself or hypothesize why the author has that purpose. That lands him at 2.0 on the scale.

How fast do you go?

Now here’s where the rubber meets the road. The scale has provided a road map. Some students have Ferraris and others have 1998 Chevy Cavaliers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it does affect how fast the class can go as a group, right? Especially in these days of pacing guides and constricted schedules.

Notice how in almost any taxonomy, the higher-level thinking tasks are blank checks, meaning they theoretically can be never-ending. There is no shortage of tasks that help students practice and deepen new knowledge, although you don’t want students to stay at Level 3 forever. There are also no shortage of tasks where students can make decisions based on facts, solve problems, and experiment—higher-order thinking tasks.

Back in the day, students who were done with their work early would just be given permission to either move on to the next lesson or more work to practice what they’ve already mastered.

Now, students who are excelling can spend that time working on higher-order skills that will always be valuable as they move through the curriculum, without the guilt associated with assigning “busy work.” This might include a task that appears on the higher levels of every taxonomy out there: helping someone else master the skills at hand.

Next week: Harnessing Classroom Controversy and Conflict

Want to go into even more depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.

Other articles you might like:

2 Replies to “Scaffolding Lessons that Work”

Comments are closed.