George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

6 Scaffolds That Deepen Independent Learning

When teaching problem-based lessons, use thinking scaffolds to propel students toward greater expertise and deeper learning.

January 17, 2020
Illustration concept showing building and scaffolding
Andy Baker / Alamy Stock Photo

When you want to conduct a problem-based unit, or push students to engage with a project or investigate a challenging topic more independently, thinking scaffolds—by way of targeted prompts, supports, and modeling—can be an important tool in your arsenal.

In a recent, small-scale study, featured in a report by Emily Boudreau on the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Usable Knowledge website, researchers identified a few intriguing scaffolds teachers can use to help students progress toward more sophisticated, deeper-level learning. In the study, which examines a high school STEM curriculum, cognitive scientist Tina Grotzer and a team of researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “noticed that as their problem-based curriculum progressed, students changed the way they approached problems. Rather than waiting for the teacher to give them answers, they made hypotheses based on existing knowledge, discussed their thoughts with their teams, and took risks—all signs of deeper-level learning,” Boudreau writes.

Researchers concluded that the thinking scaffolds provided by teachers played an important role in encouraging this shift. “We know that experts pay attention to a very different set of patterns than novices often do. Novices get caught up in the surface features and can’t necessarily see the deep principles,” Grotzer told Boudreau. “It’s really important to think what kind of scaffolding helps people take steps towards greater expertise in their thinking and reasoning.”

Here are the six scaffolds Boudreau identifies:

1. Encourage students to think about context: Pose questions that push students to think about what they know—and what they don’t yet know. This helps them become more inclined to seek out new connections, patterns, and possibilities. For example, ask: What information did you base your conclusion on? Are you sure—what don’t you know yet about this?

2. Make questions open-ended: Draw out their thinking by using generic probes, or targeted questions, to help students rethink ideas without correcting them outright. For example, ask: Can you tell me more about that? Can you explain that?

3. Tap into students’ knowledge base: Encourage students to dig into what they already know from school, their own experience, and what’s happening right now. Notes study author Grotzer: “[This is a] pedagogical move that says all of the information and experience you have is useful and you can bring it to bear.” Ask: what do you already know that could help you here?

4. Let students own it: Let students know that they should make their own choices. “The role of the teacher is not to make decisions about what to do next or execute,” Boudreau writes about working in this mode of independent inquiry. Teachers can model the way an expert might approach the problem, and ask: What’s next? How are you going to handle this?

5. Cultivate risk-taking: Encourage a classroom risk-taking culture—where students are willing to try new things—by not immediately shooting down incorrect answers and being patient before you jump in and guide students back to a more productive course. For example, say: that’s an interesting idea, let’s explore it.

6. Leave time to debrief: To encourage students to see themselves as active learners, rather than mere participants, encourage regular student reflection with questions about performance, results, and students’ thought process. For example, ask: how do you think your team is doing? How are you managing your learning? 

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Filed Under

  • Critical Thinking
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School