illustration of a step ladder

There are multiple paths babies take when learning to walk. Some babies skip crawling altogether and cruise from object to object. Others use the support of a bouncy chair or walker, or take tentative steps holding the hands of a loving adult. The age at which children are ready to walk varies, as does the process that helps them get there. Over time, with the addition and subsequent removal of the right supports at the right moments, most kids gain confidence, stability, strength, and independence and learn to walk with ease, grace, and automaticity.  

Scaffolding is the term used to describe the supports provided to students to help them learn a new concept or skill when it is first introduced.

Scaffolds help move students from what they can do now to what they will be able to do later. Like a walker, scaffolding is introduced when students need support and removed as soon as it’s no longer necessary, so that students’ mastery and independence increase over time.

Effective scaffolding is both an art and a science – it demands that teachers have a deep understanding of students’ strengths and needs as well as a clear vision of what mastery and independence look like. When teachers introduce scaffolds, they are building on what students can do independently now to help them gain more independence down the road.

Scaffolds can take many forms, and the selection of appropriate scaffolds depends in large part on the nature of the content and the needs of the students.

The following are examples of common scaffolds that can be used to support student understanding:

  • Modeling with think-alouds
  • Breaking a topic into parts
  • Providing visual models
  • Activating prior knowledge
  • Connecting to student interests
  • Using hands-on activities and manipulatives
  • Providing analogies/metaphors
  • Offering verbal cues and guiding questions
  • Using graphic organizers/mind maps
  • Showing examples
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary
  • Asking follow-up questions
  • Using stories
  • Creating opportunities for student conversation/discussion
  • Providing context
  • Offering sentence stems/language models

Since student outcomes in PBL classrooms look different than in traditional classrooms, scaffolding needs to looks different too. While PBL teachers and students are working to build knowledge and understanding of standards-based content and skills, they are also working to build broader success skills through the project process, such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and self-management. As teachers design and facilitate projects, they need to think carefully about how to scaffold process skills in addition to scaffolding students’ acquisition of core content.

Luckily, scaffolding strategies are versatile and power-packed tools – like the Swiss Army knives of teaching. With a little planning, any of the scaffolding strategies listed above can be used to scaffold either project process or content:

Scaffolding Strategy Example of Use to Scaffold Project Process Example of Use to Scaffold Content
Modeling with think-alouds Model how to generate student questions during a project launch Model how to approach a challenging math scenario
Breaking a topic into parts Analyze components of the collaboration rubric in small groups Practice making hypotheses in science to support larger understanding of the scientific method
Using graphic organizers/mind maps Develop timeline for project process Complete character analysis chart for reading fictional stories
Creating opportunities for student conversation/discussion Teams pair up to critique one another's products/presentations Engage in a Socratic Seminar on a controversial historical issue


The art of PBL facilitation requires that teachers plan thoughtfully before launching a project and respond flexibly to student needs as the project progresses.


With practice and reflection, PBL facilitators get better at designing the specific supports that will best meet their students’ needs. Just as though they are helping babies learn to walk, facilitators learn to identify the moments when supports are appropriate, and the moments when it's time for the supports to be removed. As students encounter new challenges, they may need new types of scaffolds, but the goal is always the same: ever-expanding independence, confidence, and mastery.



Yes, we provide PBL training for educators!

PBLWorks offers a variety of PBL workshops, courses and services for teachers, school and district leaders, and instructional coaches - whether you're just getting started or advancing your practice.

Learn more

Sarah Field, Senior Curriculum Manager
Sarah designs professional development programs and curriculum for PBLWorks.