Differentiation vs. Scaffolding

Kelly Nelson-Danley
Kelly Nelson-Danley
Assistant Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young student sitting at a desk using a tablet with a male teacher kneeling next to her.

Differentiation and scaffolding are both important in the classroom. While they are important and often times occur together, there is a difference between the two. As an educator, it is important to know the difference, to understand the meaning of each, to understand how they work together, and to determine when to use differentiation and scaffolding.

What is Differentiation?

Scaffolding and differentiation, though complementary to each other and similar in some aspects, are not the same. Differentiation refers to the idea of meeting the individual needs of students. For example, during guided reading groups, some students in kindergarten will be reading on a level A and others on a level D, because their ability levels are different. In another situation, one student may learn sight words best with flashcards and another may learn sight words best by playing a matching game or learning a sight word song. In these examples both students are working toward the goal of increasing their reading ability, but each requires help in different ways.

What is Scaffolding?

Differentiation is a keyword we tend to hear a lot these days in the world of education. Most educators are aware that in order to differentiate for students, they need to teach to the different learning skills, styles, backgrounds, ability levels, and interests of children. Scaffolding, however, is a lesser mentioned word in education. Some teachers may remember it briefly from their days of undergraduate classes in pedagogy but seldom use the term for something they likely do every day. Scaffolding is simply what teachers do first when instructing students. In other words, scaffolding is teaching students to solve a problem, complete a task, or achieve a goal through guidance.

The goal of scaffolding is for the teacher to slowly step back and allow students to solve problems and/or perform tasks on their own. There are several scaffolding strategies that teachers use regularly. These may include: modeling, using visual aids (videos, graphic organizers, pictures, etc.), mini-lessons, and independent practice. Scaffolding allows students to learn content with support and guidance from their teacher.

The purpose of scaffolding is to provide teaching strategies that clarify learning objectives and supports as students learn new concepts. Like differentiation, scaffolding can occur on an individual level. Unlike differentiation, scaffolding can occur class-wide when a single strategy or skill is introduced or taught to the entire class.

How Can They Work Together?

When considering how differentiation and scaffolding can work together, it is important for the teacher to consider curriculum goals. Teachers first need to decide what tasks students are expected to accomplish. Once this is decided, lessons can be developed to ensure students meet these goals with scaffolding and differentiation.

Students should first understand overall expectations and be taught by scaffolding strategies such as modeling, graphic organizers, and practice. Differentiation can then be put into place as a tool to help students learn at their personal pace and on their ability level. Once teachers introduce an objective and teach the objective, teachers can then assess student progress to determine what differentiation strategies can be put into place to meet the needs of each individual student.

Some students may continue to need scaffolding and others may progress independently. At this point, the teacher will differentiate by providing re-teaching and other scaffolding strategies to those in need and providing enhancement for those that are ready for more.

How to Determine When to Use Differentiation and Scaffolding

Knowing when to use differentiation and scaffolding is something that develops with practice and continued learning on the part of the teacher. Scaffolding should be used to support learners as they progress toward a goal, gradually releasing responsibility from the teacher to the student as the student begins to master the task at hand. The goal of scaffolding is to guide students through learning. By layering new content onto already existing knowledge, students become stronger and develop a stable foundation of understanding.

Differentiation occurs in many ways, often in small-group or peer-to-peer arrangements. Students receiving differentiation get instruction and learning opportunities such as extra practice, increased time with materials, less difficult work, or enhanced work. Determining when to use differentiation and when to use scaffolding is a professional decision made by the teacher. Often, pre- and post-assessments will help teachers identify students that need more practice on an objective or students that are ready to advance. Data from assessments can help teachers determine how to differentiate for students. Teachers can differentiate in four main ways: content, process, environment, and product.

  • Content– Content refers to how the curriculum is taught and assessed. When differentiating in the area of content, teachers can use pre-assessments to design instruction, help students develop individual goals, and integrate choice and interest into lessons.
  • Process- Process refers to how teachers deliver instruction. When teachers differentiate by process they can offer multiple points of access to curriculum such as digital texts and programs, PowerPoints, songs, individual work, or collaborative work.
  • Environment- Environment refers to how learning is structured in the classroom. When differentiating in the area of learning environment, teachers may utilize flexible seating, play music, or establish different behavior expectations in different settings or parts of the room.
  • Product- Product refers to how students show what they have learned. When teachers differentiate in the area of product, they may offer students options to demonstrate mastery. They may use rubrics to grade various displays of mastery.

Differentiation and scaffolding are both important strategies that should occur in the classroom. By using both, teachers are guiding students toward meeting goals and achieving mastery, while meeting them on their level.

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