thinking scaffolds
Thinking scaffolds are prompts and guides used in problem-based learning to help students gain deeper understanding. Source: Shutterstock

“Thinking scaffolds” are useful tools that teachers may implement in their lessons to improve students’ problem-based learning skills.

It refers to targeted prompts, support and modelling by teachers in problem-based learning to guide students through the curriculum and activities. They have been found to play an important role in helping teachers move their students toward deeper levels of understanding.

In one study, cognitive scientist Tina Grotzer and a team of researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that as they progressed through their problem-based curriculum, the way students approached problems evolved.

“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 says.

“It’s really important to think what kind of scaffolding helps people take steps towards greater expertise in their thinking and reasoning.”

Grotzer identified six thinking scaffolds that teachers used to support students’ shift towards deeper-level learning:

Student ownership space

This thinking scaffold teaches students how to take ownership of their choices.

It prompts students to take control of situations and to make decisions on their own.

Reflection time

When teachers conduct debriefing sessions at the end of the day, students look back on their learning process and identify how they handled challenges and note down areas of improvement.

This is also a great scaffold for students to foster outside the classroom as it encourages daily reflection.

Invite and manage risk

Discouraging teachers from automatically dismissing “wrong” answers, this scaffold prompts students to take risks and to be innovative with their solutions.

Knowledge and experience transfer

This scaffold grants students the space to think back to past experiences and information sources.

Search for context

This thinking scaffold triggers students to pause and to think about the context of a problem.

It also stops them from making quick assumptions and encourages them to think about all angles of an issue.

Optimise with open-ended questions

Guiding students to reconsider an idea without correcting them is another useful scaffold.

The study notes that generic probes work well but that more targeted questions also work, such as: “What do you mean? Can you say more about that?”