Distributed Scaffolding


Contributors: Iris Tabak, Sadhana Puntambekar

Scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) is a metaphor for supporting learners as they learn by performing tasks that are within their zone of proximal development (ZPD) but outside their current range of independent performance. The support provides a model of ideal performance as well as augments learners’ knowledge and skills by providing prompts, feedback, or by taking over some aspects of the task. In principle, this support is contingent and variable, adapted to changing levels of competence of the learner, and to the different levels of competence of different learners. Over time, support is gradually removed, or faded. Much research on scaffolding in the learning sciences examines how this support can be distributed (Puntambekar & Kolodner, 2005) between human, material and technological agents. Some of the open questions concerning scaffolding in formal learning environments relate to the ways in which such tailored and adaptable support can be achieved through technological support in these typically one-teacher-many-students settings.

In early research, the term scaffolding was predominantly associated with interactions that occur between an adult and a child. The one-on-one nature of the tutoring allowed the expert to provide just enough support that changed based on the progress made by the learner. However, classroom situations involving many students do not allow for the fine-tuned, sensitive, personalized exchange that occurs in one-on-one or small-group scaffolding. Rather, in today’s classroom, a single teacher is often required to scaffold up to 35 students at the same time. Therefore, instead of one teacher working with each student, support is now provided in through several resources and agents. The description of scaffolding has broadened to include software, artifacts, resources, and environments that serve as scaffolds. Multiple forms of support—distributed across available tools, activities, and agents in the classroom together can support the learning and performance of a wide variety of students. But what is important as we move forward, is that the many types and techniques of providing support be integrated into a system of scaffolding, marked with cohesion and interaction among tools and social forms of supports. Rather than providing tools for a specific task, but the tools and routines need to be coordinated and integrated in a systematic manner within a system of distributed scaffolding.

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Syllabi and Slides

Distributed Scaffolding slides by Iris Tabak and Brian Reiser
Distributed Scaffolding slides by Sadhana Puntambekar

Video Resources

Listen to the Distributed Scaffolding webinar featuring Iris Tabak and Brian Reiser

Listen to the Distributed Scaffolding webinar featuring Sadhana Puntambekar


  • Puntambekar, S., & Kolodner, J. L. (2005). Toward implementing distributed scaffolding: Helping students learn science from design. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(2), 185-217.
  • Puntambekar, S., & Kolodner, J. L. (2005). Distributed scaffolding: Helping students learn science from design. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(2), 185-217.
  • Puntambekar, S., Stylianou, A., & Goldstein, J. (2007). Comparing classroom enactments of an inquiry curriculum: Lessons learned from two teachers. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 16(1), 81–130.
  • Tabak, I. (2004). Synergy: A complement to emerging patterns of distributed scaffolding. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(3), 305-335.
  • Tabak, I., & Baumgartner, E. (2004). The teacher as partner: Exploring participant structures, symmetry and identity work in scaffolding. Cognition and Instruction, 22(4), 393-429.
  • Tabak, I., & Reiser, B. J. (2008). Software-realized inquiry support for cultivating a disciplinary stance. Pragmatics & Cognition, 16(2), 307-355.

Learning Scientists Who Have Researched This Topic

  • Roger Azevedo
  • Betsy Davis
  • Frank Fischer
  • Janet Kolodner
  • Eleni Kyza
  • Rosemary Luckin
  • Sadhana Puntambekar
  • Chris Quintana
  • Brian Reiser
  • Iris Tabak
  • Janneke van de Pol