Plugging Holes (And Tears!) With Scaffolding

Plugging holes and tears with scaffolding

By Suzy Pepper Rollins

In a dimly lit lecture hall packed with college freshmen, the physics professor pronounces, “Now, everyone in here surely remembers the difference between velocity, speed, and acceleration from your high school classes, so those problems should be super easy for you. . . . Oh, and just a reminder about displacement when you’re working with velocity.”Everyone can benefits from scaffolding because we don't remember everything we were taught.

Hmmm . . . let’s see if I can pull up a random formula from high school for something that I probably saw no real purpose in at the time. Nope. Not coming to me. Everyone else is working away . . . or faking it . . . hard to tell. How about I just sit here and fight back tears? Too late.

Enter scaffolding–a technique to plug holes just in time so that we can learn new concepts better. Scaffolding devices fill in some gaps from our past so that we can stop searching for missing pieces, minimize brain panic, and better focus on the task at hand. Everyone can benefit from scaffolding sometimes because we don’t remember everything we were taught.


The physics professor: “It’s probably been a couple of years since you’ve worked with velocity, speed, and acceleration.  There’s a little cheat sheet in your notes with formulas as a reminder.”  Me: “OK, I think I might be able to do this. I’ve got what I need in front of me.”

Teachers can largely plan for scaffolding in advance of new learning.  We take a look at our unit map and think, “What gaps might be present that will pose hurdles to new learning?”  Then we create devices (such as text notes, graphic organizers, or flow charts) that fill that space between new learning and likely past gaps. We’re still working with students on these missing pieces of knowledge . . . but in the context of new learning.

For more examples of useful tools to scaffold learning in K-12 classrooms, see my article “Just-in-Time Support” in the October 2016 issue of Educational Leadership.

Suzy Pepper Rollins ( is an education consultant who lives in Athens, Georgia. She is the founder of Math in the Fast Lane and the author of the 2014 ASCD book Learning in the Fast Lane: 8 Ways to Put ALL Students on the Road to Academic Success.