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Teaching challenge

Mr Jones is increasingly confident at using the I-We-You model to lead sequences of instruction. But he finds that some of his pupils become overwhelmed by new content and many pupils struggle when the ideas are abstract or complex. How can his instruction support pupils to be successful when tackling challenging material?

Key idea

Effective scaffolding gives pupils the knowledge and guidance to access challenging content but should be removed once pupils are experiencing high rates of success.

Evidence summary

Knowledge, new content and the role of scaffolding

Mr Jones now understands that to learn new content pupils need to be able to process it in their working memory, but that working memory capacity is limited and varies between pupils (Gathercole et al., 2006). Related knowledge helps pupils make sense of new content (Willingham, 2009). For example, pupil vocabulary knowledge allows them to process strings of letters as sentences when reading and knowledge of phonics helps them when they encounter an unfamiliar word, reducing the demands on working memory. Prior knowledge reduces the burden on working memory and frees it up to think about more challenging concepts. Where prior knowledge is lacking, further support through scaffolding can help, for example by providing a definition and pronunciation of an unfamiliar key word. But where pupils already have this knowledge, scaffolding can get in the way of pupils using their prior knowledge (Pashler et al., 2007).

Prior knowledge helps us to grasp related new ideas more easily, particularly if the new ideas are concrete, as most of the things we know are concrete. However, many of the ideas encountered at school are abstract, and distant from pupils’ everyday experiences (Willingham, 2009). When introducing abstract ideas, teachers can provide related scaffolds that make the ideas more concrete. This reduces the chances of working memory becoming overloaded, increasing the chances of pupil success. For example, the idea of adding fractions can be abstract, but we can make it more concrete by using objects or diagrams (Pashler et al., 2007).

Introducing scaffolding

Scaffolding can be introduced to support pupils to succeed with difficult tasks where they lack sufficient prior knowledge. Scaffolding involves breaking down tasks into manageable steps and providing temporary supports. This enables pupils to focus on and think about only certain aspects of the task at any one time, reducing the chances of working memory being overloaded.

Mr Jones should try to anticipate what his pupils with struggle with most, break down the task into manageable steps, and then decide what kinds of scaffolding he might put in place.

He can draw on a few different types of scaffold to support pupil thinking and make his ‘expert thinking’ explicit:

  • Modelling: For example, sharing an excellent piece of work or ‘thinking aloud’ through a problem (Rosenshine, 2012). Mr Jones can reduce the cognitive burden his pupils feel by directing pupil attention towards the key features of a problem or example. This can help them to break down a complex task into more manageable parts.
  • Worked examples: When introducing a new type of problem in maths, Mr Jones could break the problem down into steps instead of getting his pupils to attempt it in one go. He could then guide them through each step by providing prompts or explanations which would help the pupils succeed at each step. Worked examples reduce the number of options pupils need to think about by pointing them directly to successful approaches (Sweller, 2016).
  • Guides: Teachers can also anticipate common pupil mistakes and misconceptions and provide guides such as checklists as support to overcome these (Rosenshine, 2012). For example, when teaching his pupils creative writing, Mr Jones could give his pupils a checklist of things they should include. This means that pupils do not have to simultaneously think about both what they want to write and the complex devices they need to use. Checklists also support them to review their work to avoid common errors like leaving out full stops and misconceptions like every ‘s’ should have an apostrophe.

Removing scaffolding

Scaffolds need to be temporary to successfully support learning. As pupil knowledge develops, using fewer examples and more problem solving appears to improve learning, rather than continuing to provide high levels of guidance (Pashler et al., 2007). As pupils develop more knowledge, trying to process the scaffolding at the same time as drawing on their existing knowledge can overload working memory. As a result, scaffolding is best removed as pupils’ knowledge grows. Rather than removing all the scaffolds at once, however, Mr Jones can gradually ‘fade’ them out by removing support gradually, as pupils begin to experience higher success rates (Rosenshine, 2012).

Effective scaffolding increases the chances of pupils experiencing success and improves pupil motivation (Coe et al., 2014). Success should be a central guiding principle when deciding whether and when to remove scaffolding as pupil expertise increases.

Nuances and caveats

Scaffolding alone cannot overcome limitations in pupil prior knowledge. Strategies like explicitly teaching content and allowing pupils to rehearse this new knowledge are necessary to ensure pupils have adequate knowledge (Rosenshine, 2012).

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can successfully scaffold his instruction if he understands that:

  • pupils will struggle and working memory will become overloaded if they do not have relevant knowledge of new content – particularly if it is complex or abstract
  • scaffolding can provide knowledge to support pupils to access new content through modelling, worked examples and guides
  • scaffolding needs to be removed over time as it can become a barrier once pupil knowledge is developed. However, a high success rate should be maintained

Further reading

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Pashler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360-367.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey - Bass.