I hadn't ever heard the term "scaffolding" until I started grad school, then it seemed like I heard the term used all the time in very different ways. It was similar to the way rhetoric was used when I started my master's program in Communication. Every professor had his or her own definition of "rhetoric," and I quickly learned that if I synthesized all of the definitions then everything was rhetoric. And if a concept is everything, maybe it's really nothing. Well, I don't think that is true of rhetoric or scaffolding. However, after having completed my doctoral program, I will admit that I still don't think I have a good defintion for scaffolding ... the kind of defintion that would make sense to an insurance agent or sales rep whom I happened to meet at a dinner party.
I recently heard a non-education person refer to scaffolding as the ugly stuff surrounding a structure that is used to help make it bright and shiny again. This definition was given in a spiritual context, so it doesn't totally apply to education. However, there are some aspects of this definition that apply to teaching and learning. The first is the notion that scaffolding is something that is eventually removed. A builder or painter does not leave the scaffolding on forever, just a teacher strives to remove the supports that students rely on to complete academic tasks.
The second application of this definition is that the end product of learning is some sort of improvement growth. The question about what improvement or growth looks like is a totally separate topic, and the value of the such growth and improvement may differ between student and teacher. However, an underlying premise for scaffolding is that there is an indentifiable change in what a student knows, understands or can do. Otherwise, why take the time to put the scaffolding up in the first place?
I will explore this topic more in coming posts.