Scaffolding – HKEJ 20th Sep 2014

HK Economic Journal September 20, 2014 Posted in JEMS Founder's Columns


One thing that has always fascinated me is bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong. I think they look like works of art and I marvel at how bamboos can be crissed and crossed, bound and tied, to make scaffolding for skyscrapers in Hong Kong. These temporarily constructed works of art enable workers to climb into the skies to build, paint and reconstruct buildings.


As I sit in my office, I look out onto a building which just had scaffolding go up around it. I watched as the scaffolding got constructed at its base level, and as the days went by, each level got added above it and the thirty storey building is now wrapped in scaffolding, enabling the workers to get to the top.


In education, there is also something called scaffolding but it’s of another sort. In the same way that scaffolding is added as layers, teaching can be done in layers, in order to help the learner best understand the step-by-step process. So for example, if a person is learning the piano, he first has to learn how to recognise notes, then play the scales, simple tunes before attempting more complicated pieces. Or take English for example: one has to learn how to read the alphabet and short words before constructing sentences and paragraphs. Scaffolding breaks things down into steps for the learner, enabling him to slowly acquire the skills and build on them. Scaffolding of teaching enables the learner to slowly build more skills and ultimately to one day be ‘free standing’, able to independently do the tasks without assistance.


In the fast paced world of Hong Kong, we sometimes expect instantaneous things. We want everything done immediately and if not immediately, then at least super efficiently. In some places in the world, it can apparently take up to 6 years to build a high rise building. In Hong Kong, we’re used to having buildings sprout up within a year or two. Sometimes we expect that of children too. We expect that they learn quickly, reach the height of achievement overnight and soar in all that they do. But we forget that every building required levels of scaffolding to be built before the building could be erected and children require layers of learning before they can soar.


Especially at the start of the new school year when children are faced with different challenges in their time of transition, either academically, socially or emotionally, it’s important that we help them learn by scaffolding for them.


For example, if learning addition of double digits is challenging,

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then you could scaffold as follows:

Add single digits à add one single digit to a double digit à use physical objects to do the addition of double digit items à do addition of double digits using pen and paper à do mental addition


Or if making friends is challenging, then scaffolding could look like this:

Find a person to sit next to in class à say hello and ask questions to find common interests à bring something into school the next day that relates to the interest to share à ask to do something together during break time that interests your new friend


I remember one instance when a boy came into my class crying one day. He had just been told off by his mother for not being independent enough and not being able to use chopsticks on his own. He felt defeated, ashamed and hopeless. So we went into my office and started a ‘scaffolded’ lesson in chopstick usage. He first learnt how to hold chopsticks properly by learning how to grip the two sticks with his fingers, then started picking up larger objects that were easy to grip, then moved onto smaller objects that required more focus and muscle strength, then at the end, he started picking up marbles with his chopsticks! He went from not being able to hold chopsticks properly to mastering the arts of picking up slippery marbles! He was able to do it independently at the end, having been giving scaffolded steps.


We want to see our children succeed and children themselves desire desperately to succeed but success usually comes because we as parents and educators have clearly provided scaffolding for them to learn. We are challenged to break abstract or challenging learning experiences into smaller, step-by-step ones so that children learn well. After all, buildings aren’t built in a day and nor are children. Let’s take the time to scaffold and help them grow tall, strong, steady and upright.


Christine Ma-Lau
JEMS Learning House
Founder and Principal


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