This week’s blog post is about scaffolding, one of my favourite topics, favourite ways to support instruction, favourite puzzles, and favourite way to work some magic. And now that I am a UDLer at KPU, I get to talk about scaffolding from a course design perspective, which frankly, is where this discussion belongs.

When people talk about scaffolding instruction, they often talk about “scaffolding the student’s learning”. Following this line of thought scaffolding looks roughly like:


§  Observe the student struggling


§  Assemble a rough sense of where the student is going wrong in their thinking


§  Correct the student by offering ways of changing their mind/approach/strategy


§  See some change in the moment


§  Feel frustration that the change isn’t generalizing


§  Get stuck/feel dismayed/get annoyed/hmph



However, scaffolding is not oriented to the PERSON, it is oriented to the TASK. It is not breaking a person’s learning into steps; it is breaking the TASK (assignment, activity, concept) into component steps, pieces, processes, what have you.

But before we continue that thread, we should start with the idea that Jerome Bruner, the father of the term scaffolding, emphasized the social aspect of learning; the ways that learning occurs through helpful, structured interaction between children and more-knowledgeable others.

'[Scaffolding] refers to the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring' (Bruner, 1978, p. 19).

The job of the older child, parent, teacher, or instructor is to modify the representation of the task so that it can be understood and practiced, each component threaded together until the task at large is mastered. As the more knowledgeable instructor, your job is not to observe and modify the student but to observe and modify the task so that step by step, the student assembles the knowledge, skill, and ability that your course learning outcomes embody.

For Bruner, knowledge creation pivots on symbolic representation and who is the best person to lead the forge in changing, playing with, modifying, and manipulating symbols? You. The expert.

If your students are struggling, start with two things: target the symbolic representation and break the task into steps. In my experience, many teachers do this implicitly. I believe that if you like teaching, you inevitably like looking at knowledge in different ways and breaking ideas down.


Let’s go back and look at the student-oriented scaffolding approach I mentioned earlier and shift it to a task-oriented scaffolding approach:



§  Observe the student struggling;


§  Assemble a rough sense of where the student is going wrong in their thinking;



§  Consider the structure and complexity of the concept or task that you are teaching


§  Explain the structure of the task, identifying points of ambiguity, typical mistakes, and component ideas or assumptions are.


§  “Pull back” to focus on one task component at a time, and provide opportunity for low-stakes practice.


§  Feel a sense of reward both for you and the learner as component tasks are mastered.




Let’s look at scaffolding oral presentations as an example.

Many students loathe and avoid oral presentations, some experience acute anxiety, others let their group members carry the presentation load, and some won’t even show up. How can we use UDL design principles to scaffold oral presentations?

Step ONE - Don’t start by thinking about the student! Don’t think why they hate presentations, when they hate them, their latent fears and vulnerabilities, workplace preparation, early traumatic experiences, or social anxiety disorder. FOCUS ON THE TASK.

Step TWO - Focus on the oral presentation task. Oral presentations are/require:

  • Research

  • Rehearsal

  • Exposure to judgment

  • Real-time responses to facial and gestural cues

  • Behavioral inhibition (don’t say something dumb, please don’t say something dumb)

  • Attentional inhibition (focus on talking and taking your turn)

  • Thinking on your feet

Step THREE – Use UDL principles to design class activities around developing and practicing oral presentation methods in accordance with these component processes. In the same way as we have ways of working on and developing writing mechanics, design for developing presentation mechanics.

Step FOUR – Design activities to practice research skills, developing some immunity to social judgment and audience cues and getting comfortable with inhibiting behavior and attention.

Step FIVE – work with students through component skills, designing for feedback and self-reflection.

Step SIX – Enjoy the fruits of your task-oriented scaffolding work.

 Scaffolding, when practiced as a task-oriented process, has the capacity to support learners (and instructors) in so many ways. Its application through UDL can be poetic as UDL provides a method and framework to work dominantly with representation, while pulling in expression and in turn supporting student engagement. If you’re interested in having a look at how scaffolding approaches can help you address your own frustration, switch up the presentation of information, deal with group work headaches and presentation confounds, let me know. As I said, I love talking scaffolding and will be happy to work with you. In earnest.



Bruner, J. S. (1978). The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In A. Sinclair, R., J. Jarvelle, and W. J.M. Levelt (eds.) The Child's Concept of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag.