Beyond Dependency Learning: scaffolding, crutches and stabilisers.

Scaffolding is the means to an end…but the building should stand alone.

One of the challenges we face as teachers is knowing how much help to give.  There are so many examples of structured support across a range of learning experiences: arm-bands in swimming, stabilisers on a bicycle… the vocab crib-sheet in language learning.  They are all designed to provide support in the early phases of learning, with the explicit goal of removing them later on.  The question is when.  My feeling is that, too often, we leave the support structure in place for too long and students develop a dependency; an over-reliance on the support and a mutually reinforcing fear of failure.

I remember teaching my daughter to ride her bike.  It was a classic parenting moment.   With stabilisers, it was a piece of cake. But, once they were off, she didn’t find it easy.  One day I was running along behind her, pushing her along to give her momentum.  After a while she said ‘you can let go now’.  The beautiful thing was – I already had!  She was away; I was so proud of her I actually cried.

So much of teaching is the art of building confidence and minimising the consequences of failure, showing the way so students can go it alone.  A crucial element is the explicit determination to take the supports away in the end and it helps for students to be fully aware of that.  In lessons it is often very easy for students and teachers to create the illusion of learning when the supports are all around.  Over the years I’ve seen a lot of lessons where students are immersed in ‘learning’ based on supportive resources; they’ve been saturated with facts and ideas but, all along, they’ve been wearing impermeable skins that leave nothing behind. The ‘in the moment’ learning hasn’t left a deep enough impression.  All of us need to guard against that.

Take this example from MFL:  A routine vocab sheet:

Screen shot 2015-02-07 at 12.51.56
Even a novice can make meaningful sentences with this.

Look at me: “Ich muss Hausaufgaben machen”. “Am Vormittag habe ich ferngesehen”.   Easy.  Students can practise these things repeatedly in the class giving the impression that they’re getting the hang of the structures.  BUT – take away the vocab sheet and what do you have? That’s the question.  What they need to do, explicitly, is learn the vocab sufficiently so that they can put the elements together without help.  That requires a shift in emphasis: if the goal in the lesson is for students to aim at doing this unaided from the start, they will process the information differently to a situation where all they need to do is produce the goods from the sheet.   They need to develop the techniques for retaining key phrases, building up their internal resource-bank. That requires lessons with opportunities to wing it a bit, speaking unaided using what they know without the worry that getting it wrong might matter too much.  Great MFL lessons can do that as I’ve seen at HGS and KEGS.

There is a similar situation in English.  Writing frames are great; lists of interesting or effective openers, closers and connectives can be found everywhere. Students can use them really well to produce well structured pieces of writing. I remember by daughter beaming after her KS2 SATS test because, as she put it, “I got in my ‘crimson’ and my ‘consequently'”, (words she never actually uses…).  But what is left after the supports are removed?  I wonder if we could do more to make it more routine for student to ‘do one with help and now do it on your own’.  That approach should be built-in.  I once visited a primary school in a very deprived area in Essex.  The Year 1 teacher had been working on adjectives: the wall was covered in rich vocab to describe a villain in the story they were reading: scary, crabby, wicked, unkind, terrible, grumpy, selfish. They’d used them in their writing. But when the children were asked to describe the villain in the class discussion with books closed, they reverted to the basics ‘he’s bad, he’s old and mean‘ and simple things like that.  It was an uphill struggle.  They didn’t own these words; they needed to go much further to absorb them, internalise them and make them their own.   To me this seemed to be a question of making the learning for memory more explicit; less support and not more – apart from the odd crutch for a few?

The same is true in science.  My wife (also a science teacher) and I have phrase we often use for nonsense learning: “an ibble is an obble”. That’s our short-hand for all the rubbish text books and hoop-jumping teaching that leaves students with absolutely no residual understanding of science.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my current Year 8 topic: reactions of metals.  Each one is easy to learn on its own: Magnesium + Oxygen –> Magnesium Oxide. Got it.  Then we introduce acids.  With endless repetition, students get the idea that Hydrochloric acid makes Chlorides; Nitric acid makes Nitrates and Sulphuric Acid makes Sulphates.  It’s a name game. With the grid on the board, everyone’s a genius.  We learn that the gas produced is Hydrogen, linking it to the formula for each acid – the atoms have just been rearranged.  It’s always Hydrogen – so you can’t go wrong.  What gas is produced? Hydrogen!  Of course.

Roll forward a week: we start with a TEST!  This was the homework – to learn for a test.  I was impressed; without any aids, they could still get it and the scores were high.  But, then came the reality check:  we moved onto Metal Carbonates reacting with acids. Now we have Carbon Dioxide in the mix.  Crumbs. The students now had to make choices and began to diverge.  The deeper learners still got it; they’d learned why it was Hydrogen from metal + acid; it stuck and they still got it when asked.  The surface learners were starting to guess. Last week’s geniuses were taking a 50:50 punt: it’s either carbon dioxide or hydrogen…and a few even threw in Oxygen as a wild card (even though we’d actually had a discussion about why the gas couldn’t possibly be oxygen last week).

So – what to do? Do I give them more help? More scaffolding? I don’t think so.  Firstly I think I need to work with some students to improve the link from the surface learning to the underlying models; deeper models will lead to deeper recall.  Secondly, I think I need to do more testing for the recall itself.  Next week we’re kicking off with a short synoptic test; and we’ll do it again and again, each time reinforcing the conceptual models (the rearranging atoms) and the simple recall routines for each type of reaction: a bit of rote action!  That should help them relate to the models.  It works both ways.  They’ll get there.

The stabilisers have got to come off in the end!

The stabilisers have got to come off in the end.






  1. As always Tom, a great piece! Reading Make It Stick at the moment. Fantastic book. It basically endorses your stabilisers idea, but I’m sure you’ve already it!


  2. Great piece. I’ve often thought about this when I worked as a teacher. It sounds horribly old-fashioned but there is something to say for just learning stuff, isn’t there? Do you really know Shakespeare, for example, if you don’t “know” Shakespeare? You can’t have a good idea about it until you have read and understood it. I have also tried to use drama in English as a Foreign Language teaching to talk specifically about that feeling of knowing and how you arrive at it: get the class to write scripts which they have to leave at the other end of the room before they enact them; they can consult as many times as they like but they can’t read off the page.

    In this exercise what strikes me is just how little we can learn in one go, how over-confident we tend to be that we have “got it”. I’m going through the process myself as I try to learn how to prune my apple tree. Read a book, “get it”, head out to the garden and find I am not the expert I thought I was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That must be a common experience. I have always had the problem with learning guitar chord sequences for songs; I can play along with a song book but my repertoire of songs that I know by heart is pitifully limited.


  3. “Learning to ride a bike” is an interesting one. With my youngest we had one of those “balance bikes” whilst some of our friends had bikes with stabilisers for their kids.

    My daughter felt that she wasn’t as grown up because she didn’t have pedals BUT the skills she learnt (how to correct balance etc.) became second nature so she didn’t have to think about them.

    First day on a pedal bike she was away within 30mins.

    Perhaps some of the supports we give students are like that? We aim to allow students to access the harder/more grown-up things too early, certainly before they have mastered the underlying skills, and when the support is removed these gaps hold them back?


    • That’s interesting. My son had similar route – a wooden bike with no chain or pedals. In terms of learning at school, it’s always a tricky judgement about when to move on vs embedding core ideas further…


  4. Great blog Tom. Scaffolding is such a complex thing. As the lead in school for whole school literacy, I often find myself championing the use of scaffolding to develop students’ awareness of language and grammatical construction. However, knowing when to remove the ‘stablisers’ is a skill that needs to be honed over time. In fact, it’s often what limits our most able students. I see schools over-relying on PEE, for example, when it can be more of a hindrance than support for a lot. Also, many inconsistencies in summative assessments are most probably due to differing approaches in how the summative assessments are carried out; some teachers providing a heavily scaffolded framework whilst others preferring to let students fly free. It’s a difficult task, judging it just right. But when students can do something completely unaided, we feel the greatest satisfaction.



  5. Great article Tom. I’m starting to feel that some of the problem we face as teachers is “one size fits all”. Can’t let the class move out of scaffolded training as some are struggling, maybe this is what we should test. A test to see if they have the info to then progression to exploring the idea. This could happen immediately, end of a lesson or series of lessons, with students progressing into deeper tasks. More work and harder to manage as the teacher often has to shift gears of support from “this is how to..” To “How are you applying…” to a conversation on the new ideas that are being created.
    I think we also have to acknowledge that not all students will move out of scaffolding due to interest or skill. I will always be a mediocre drawer as I don’t have a passion for it, and don’t have the time but I enjoy and am good at my forms of art allowing me to express myself, the same can be said of all students.


  6. Is the problem not that we scaffold but that we scaffold a subject rather than focusing on being able to learn?

    In many ways we provide a learning environment (another name for a type of scaffold?) for most things in early life but not for learning. We expect, once young learners have gotten over the nappy, feeding, walking, talking (riding a bike) and a little bit of socialising, to go to school and learn the other things neatly broken down into subjects. What is removed in this process of making learning a series of subjects is reason and context. Both significant parts of earlier learning experiences. Because learning requires reason and context and learners struggle to find it in a subject based curriculum we look for a substitute and replace it with the writing frame, routine vocab sheet etc. Doing so further removes the learner from his or her learning environment and does not replace reason or context. The result is little value to the subject content that is learnt. With compliant learners this is no problem but where we have vocal learners who want to ask “why?” then we face challenges from both those we deem able as well as those we regard as less able.

    If we are unable to provide reason and context and insist on a subject based approach then we must provide something better than crutches and stabilisers. My suggestion is we develop the ability to learn even in the absence of reason or context. I am not talking or suggesting labeling learners, lessons structured around learning styles or another artificial constructs.

    There is considerable evidence, given the same environmental conditions, that those who have developed the skills for finding options and are able to regulate their own motivation and behaviour are more successful than those who have limited resources at there disposal. Those than can design and build their own learning scaffold are more successful than those that rely on others to provide it.

    I am suggesting we should show learners how to manage their learning environment in order to meet their learning needs. My experience (35+ years of teaching) and research suggests there are a series of skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that, if developed, will enable learners to design and build their own learning scaffolds. I call this “Learning Intelligence” or “LQ” . I challenge anyone to explore the concept and not come to the conclusion that LQ is what we should be developing in our learners in order to enable them to meet any learning challenge.

    You can find an introductory graphic on LQ here:

    For much more about LQ I have written over 35 articles and these are available at:

    For a personal introduction to LQ and what it means for teaching and learning I have prepared a presentation that can be delivered to groups of teachers as part of CPD.


    • Hello there! I nearly skipped past your post, as I saw the immortal phrase “focusing on how to learn”, and I assumed it would be the usual exhortation to vague, aspirational concepts which sound good, but don’t really translate into manageable teaching practice, let alone tangible advances in children’s learning.

      Then however I saw that you describe ‘learning intelligence’ as teaching children to manage their learning environment, which I took to mean ‘adapt’ their learning environment to give themselves better access to learning.

      In practice, when viewing your pictogram, I realised that your notion of learning intelligence is indeed a sink-hole for every 21st Century concept going, and I really can’t see how on earth you can teach all of those things in a systematic way. I’m not even sure how some of them relate to ‘learning intelligence’ as you define it. ‘Compassion’ for example?! It seems that the only thing missing from the list is probably the most powerful thing to help children learn more about any part of life, and that is a comprehensive foundational knowledge of the subject area in question.

      Sorry – this sounds more negative than intended!


      • Thanks for the challenge to explain my thinking and experience as a teacher.

        You have given only part of the definition of LQ. It is defined as “The ability to manage your learning environment to meet your learning needs.” And yes it consists of a set of skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours and yes some can be taught but some have to be experienced and developed by the individual. We suffer the problem in education of wanting to turn everything into a subject and then wanting to have a sort of copyright to teach it. People learn without being taught by others and in the digital age we need to acknowledge this. LQ is very much grounded in the practical aspects of overcoming learning challenges and is many ways my own story but it is also the story of the many students I have taught who have found schools a toxic learning environment. Think of LQ as a state of mind, a predisposition to learning that can be developed and once developed makes learning easier. It not just better access but a better understanding of learning. Understanding why you feel a certain way when faced with challenges helps you manage those challenges more effectively. It also helps break the impulsive link we make between our ability and being able to learn. Finding something difficult to learn does not always mean we have no ability or talent in that area yet many learners translate this into what they believe they can and cannot learn.

        I have avoided saying we should teach LQ although we can teach some elements of the skills. We can create situations in a learning environment that help develop attitudes, attributes and behaviours too.

        I do not particularly like the idea of LQ being described as a “sink hole” but I will accept it brings together disparate threads of 21st Century learning into one coherent concept. What I have tried to do on reflecting on what works and does not work in learning and teaching and through research bring together those elements that can help a learner manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs. I believe there is a place for all those skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours I have listed, including compassion. We cannot ignore the behaviours of those around us when learning, they have an influence on how we behave and react. Helping others is a great way to learn ourselves, finding ways of explaining or demonstrating to gain understanding for others brings with it the reward of a deeper understanding and so I have no problem in including compassion in my list. I would hope every teacher possesses a great deal of compassion and that they model their learning behaviours with their students. I believe that a great teacher is also a great learner.

        LQ is not a subject and so I find it difficult to comment on your final statement. “It seems that the only thing missing from the list is probably the most powerful thing to help children learn more about any part of life, and that is a comprehensive foundational knowledge of the subject area in question.” What is the subject area in question that you refer to?

        I would argue that any child who can develop and apply LQ is the most powerful thing we can do to help children learn. This is not just fanciful theory. I have developed a coaching model and resources in literacy and numeracy that is underpinned by the LQ concept and used it in a center for children aged 9 to 14. Progress and attitudes to learning as measured by the schools of those children who attended the coaching center went to was remarkable to say the least. Not least was the increased confidence in learning of the children. LQ does not prohibit or preclude the teaching of knowledge, it just makes the process and challenges of learning more transparent, accessible and enjoyable.


      • Firstly – I would like to apologise for the tone of my first response. It was indeed rude in manner and insulting to your professional experience. I guess I was wanting to try to cut straight through to what I, personally, see as a problem to your approach.

        I spent some years trying to launch the IB PYP in a school, and I also spent some time trying to create a hybrid model involving the principles of ‘Building Learning Power’ in my current school. Trust me, I believe in the value of the qualities which you espouse, and indeed I would champion the achievement of them as an aspiration for the education system as a whole.

        However, I do now believe that a large number of these skills and qualities emerge as by-products of properly engaging and wrestling with life and learning itself, and that, furthermore, to build a programme around too many of them reduces the enterprise to triviality. In essence, you’re almost saying, “to be a successful learner, you need to be a completely rounded human being” which is surely the end point of learning, rather than the starting point. I would be more upbeat if you had boiled things down to 3 key qualities/skills or the such like, which teachers should focus on developing in children.

        My comment about foundational knowledge in the subject area in question is referring to whatever area we are wanting children to develop these skills in order to learn. I could have all of these qualities but still not do as well on a course in Japanese history as someone who was brought up in Japan. My concern is that a programme such as yours begins to sound like “These are everything you need to become good at something.”

        What I DON’T want to do is call into question the success of your coaching programme. I think that the notion of a teacher as a ‘coach’ to a learner is tremendously powerful for instilling the independence in learners which this blog post was all about the need to do. I simply think that you’re advertising what you do under too many banners.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No need to apologise. It is important I recognise how others perceive what I am advocating.

        You are right in saying that a large number of the aspects of LQ emerge as by products but only if actively recognised. In my experience many schools and teachers do not recognise them and so I believe they need acknowledging and drawing the attention of those guiding learning as well as those who are learners.

        I am not trying to build a programme around them all. As you suggest it would undermine the main thrust of LQ. What I am saying though is to be a successful learner you should pay some attention to these things. Learning is a “work in progress” and hopefully we strive to be the best we can be throughout our lives. The rouble is many are put off learning because many of the aspects of learning are not discussed, considered or they are not given the tools to edit the learning experience to meet their learning needs. Many teachers teach the way they learn and consider it appropriate to plan and deliver lessons using their model. It does not suit all learners. I am not an advocate of trying to teach to meet “learning styles”, it’s too much to ask and often limits the teacher. I think it is better to educate the learner into recognising that learning may be difficult for them at that moment not because of the subject but because their learning environment is working against them and not for them.

        I am working at developing a set of teaching scenarios that show how you can support LQ development without adding additional planning or resources to the lesson. This I think is the way forward. A little like adding seasoning to a dish, it alters the flavour but not the ingredients or the actual dish. Ellen Langer’s work on Mindful Learning is a good example of how this can be achieved. There is an article on my blog about LQ and lesson planning that demonstrates this idea. Learning Intelligence (LQ) and Lesson Planning

        Your point about doing as well as somebody brought up in Japan is a good one and shows the importance of LQ. Application of LQ would help you recognise the reason for your comparative performance (not based on ability but on exposure) and suggest you found ways to compensate if you were to try to improve your performance. I wrote about a conference I attended in the Netherlands and one lecture given in Dutch. I do not speak Dutch but found a way to follow the lecture and to later ask questions (in English). That is an example of LQ in action.

        Thank you for your final comment, it provides an insight into how the concept is perceived and something I will address as I continue to promote LQ. I will accept the criticism that I am trying to say too much at once.


      • Thank you very much 4C3D for your final comment below (It won’t permit me to reply to it). I have nothing to quibble with in what you say, and indeed greatly value your clarifications about how you approach things. I particularly like your description of it being ‘seasoning’ on the existing teaching. I feel encouraged to drill down further into your blogs, and I might even (gasp!) buy your e-book, as it sounds like you’re trying to do something more nuanced than I’ve seen before in this area. Thank you for your time.
        Cheers 🙂


  7. The piagetean in me says that your deep learners have enough abstract understanding to see the link between your names and the chemistry, while the rest are left trying (or not) to learn concrete rules to please you.
    Where does that leave your scaffolding? Too skeletal to help the concrete rule kids? Too filled out to force those who could potentially make the jump to abstract think it through? Somewhere in between and no use to either?


  8. Very insightful post. Giving so much support (scaffolding, crutch, stabilizers, etc, you name it) would increase the chances of producing a student who is highly dependent on them. There needs to be a system wherein after a teaching session, students apply what they have learned in class.

    However, one does need to consider the learning speed of a student as well as his/her retention capability when it comes to restructuring educational support. It can be a challenge since you have so many students with varying styles of learning aptitudes in a classroom.


  9. Thought provoking but wld like to reinforce fact that like stabilisers on a bike the scaffolds have a place in the early stages – and yes – like your daughter – when confident – will be happy to ride solo


  10. Brilliant piece. Our first point of call with students whether one to one or in a group is to get them to think about their learning. We get them to think of The why, What and the How of learning from teachers and in their own learning. This bike analogy will come in handy for the new academic year

    Liked by 1 person

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