Pretty much everyone agrees scaffolding students’ work is a ‘good thing’. Whenever they get stuck we leap in with our trusty writing frames and help them get going. A good writing frame can teach an understanding of text coherence and structure, prompt metacognition and serve as jolly useful checklist.

But I think we get a few things wrong.

Thinking about where the scaffolding metaphor comes from is instructive. Builders use scaffolding to enable them to attempt projects which would be otherwise impossible – or at least very unsafe. They do not use scaffolding to help them knock together a dwarf wall in your back garden. And then, when they’ve erected their shining skyscrapers, they take the scaffolding away. Unless scaffolding is removed we are unable to fully appreciate an architect’s vision.

In teaching, we tend to use scaffolding to make work easier. In order to prevent students feeling stuck, or overcoming difficulty, we give them a writing frame. Then, when they’ve finished, we leave it there.

I want to suggest two principles for the effective use of scaffolding.

First, we should never use scaffolding to make easy work easier. We should only ever use it to make the impossible possible. We need to simplify the task sufficiently to allow pupils to attempt it, but make it hard enough so that everyone has to do something challenging. Everyone should struggle, no matter their ability.

Second, never put up scaffolding unless you have a plan for taking it down. If we leave it there, students will become dependent on it. They’ll never be able to perform without support, and this often ends up stifling their ideas and expression. Clunky straightjackets like PEE (Point Evidence Explain) and its many variants can be useful as a starting point, but as soon as students have mastered using them they need to be taken away. Taking away the scaffold forces students to struggle. The act of dredging memory for ideas helps the process to become internalised. If students are struggling too much, put the scaffold (or at least some of it) back. And then take it away again. As soon as possible.

If you’re interested, here’s a method for removing scaffolding from writing.