Differentiation vs. Scaffolding

  (Updated November 12, 2021)
Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
Young student sitting at a desk using a tablet with a male teacher kneeling next to her.

The concepts of differentiation and scaffolding are closely related and can be used effectively in conjunction with one another. With that said, however, differentiation and scaffolding may be used independently depending upon the circumstances surrounding the established goals of a lesson and student learning.

The following is a discussion of scaffolding vs. differentiation, similarities and differences between the two concepts, and helpful tips related to the best scenarios in which educators should employ differentiation, scaffolding, or a blend of the two.

What is Differentiation?

The term differentiation has been a buzzword in educational circles for the past 15 to 20 years.  Differentiation focuses upon adapting instruction to meet the needs of individual students. For example, an English language arts instructor may present a lesson about prepositions to a middle school class in which a basic definition and examples are provided. When released to complete an application activity, many students may demonstrate their understanding of prepositions based solely upon the definitions and examples.

However, an individual student might be struggling with the concept. The teacher may address the struggling student discretely and provide a physical demonstration of prepositions by asking the student to describe the spatial relationship between a pencil the teacher is holding and the student’s desk. The student would respond naturally by using prepositional phrases (i.e., above the desk, beside the desk, below the desk, etc.)

In this manner, the teacher differentiated the instructional approach used for the struggling student support from the method used to instruct the class. Essentially, differentiation is “in the moment” adaptation of instruction to best assist students in understanding a concept.

What is Scaffolding?

While differentiation is incorporated primarily during instructional delivery, scaffolding is implemented within the curriculum and unit designing processes. Much like a physical scaffold used for building structures, scaffolding in education focuses upon the delivery of content in a manner in which concepts build upon one another with increasing rigor.

A good example of scaffolding in curriculum design is how an algebra teacher would deliver instruction surrounding solving quadratic functions. Before delving into quadratics, the teacher would first teach students the process of solving square roots, then solving equations containing square roots, and finally culminating with quadratic functions. The instructor in this scenario, knowing that all quadratic equations contain square roots, intentionally laid the foundation, applied them to a previously learned concept, and culminated the unit with a new skill comprised of the two previous skills.

Just as most babies must learn to roll over before they can crawl and can crawl before they are able to walk, scaffolding in education is a step-by-step process in which primary skills lead to secondary skills, which then lead to tertiary skills and so on.

What Students can Benefit Most from Differentiation?

The most direct answer is that all students can benefit from differentiation to some extent whenever they struggle to understand a specific concept. Differentiation is very useful in settings in which the learners in a classroom are heterogeneously grouped (gifted students and moderately proficient students.)

Depending upon the content area, gifted students may often grasp concepts quickly and with little supplemental instruction. Other students in the classroom may need to be presented with various examples and real-world applications of the concept before they can develop mastery. An effective teacher in this scenario would allow the gifted students to begin applying the new concept independently while taking the time to differentiate the lesson content for the students who do not grasp it as quickly.

What Students can Benefit Most from Scaffolding?

Beginning or struggling learners can potentially experience the greatest benefit from scaffolded instruction. Consider literacy instruction within the primary grades: before most students can read, they must learn the alphabet followed by the sounds each letter represents. This knowledge is then applied to learning phonics, which examines how the letter sounds interact with one another to form words.

Finally, the students are ready to take their combined recognitions of visual symbols and their associated sounds and use this scaffolded knowledge to read and write actual words. It then stands to reason that if scaffolding works with the most basic of concepts, it can also work with complex concepts such as research writing and calculus.

How to Determine Which to Use

To determine whether to use differentiation or scaffolding, educators should first identify their audience to estimate how quickly students will be able to grasp new concepts based upon their specified ability levels combined with their prior knowledge and learning styles. In a setting in which the students already possess the requisite prior knowledge to perform a new skill, differentiation is an effective method of “dialing in” the instruction in ways that will benefit individual students. In a setting in which students have no prior experience with a new concept, a scaffolded, step-by-step approach is beneficial to ensure that students have a solid foundational understanding of the basics before progressing to more challenging learning activities.

Ways to Use Both Together

Differentiation and scaffolding are complementary and can be used seamlessly, so an ideal manner to use these methods is in conjunction with one another. Intentional teachers can develop scaffolded units that provide an entire class of students with the building blocks for mastery development. Throughout the delivery of the scaffolded content, they can then use differentiation strategies to individualize the instruction to ensure that all students can develop a solid grasp of the lesson content.

Differentiation and scaffolding are two critical factors for students to learn effectively. As in most cases, educators must take the time required to map out the flow of concepts needed for successful learning to occur. Teachers can then develop strategies for differentiation to prepare themselves for assisting students who need to experience the identified concepts in a different manner to meet the goals of the lesson. Scaffolding should be a significant part of the differentiation and used in levels.

*Updated November 2021
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