Scaffolding: Enduring People Development

My first boss out of business school was a bit mad. However, there was method to his madness. He was the master of the question. Every time I came out of his office I thought that I had just experienced a meeting with a three-year old, Why? Why? Why? How do you think price influenced share? What happened last year that might have impacted our vs year ago results? I’d write down the questions and go find answers.

Eventually, I started to anticipate his questions, arriving to our meetings with the answers prepared. Over time I started to put the answers together, to explain the issues in the business and eventually developed actions to address these issues.

The mad genius boss didn’t know it at the time, but he was using a technique called “scaffolding”. The idea of scaffolding is that when learning, people have a gap between what they can do on their own, and what they have the ability to learn with assistance. By asking questions, the person providing the assistance can guide the learner through the problem. Over time, by asking the same questions, the learner becomes more independent as they can anticipate the questions and begin to see the solution independently. Then the expert can withdraw the scaffolding (or assistance) as the learner has developed mastery of a type of problem solving.

The key to this technique is that the questions need to be generic to the problem solving process. Here are some examples from Holton & Clarke (2006):

Getting started:

  • Can you rephrase the problem?
  • What is the problem we need to solve?
  • What information do we have?
  • Have you seen a problem like this before?
  • What strategy can you use to get started?

While working on the problem:

  • Why did you think of that?
  • Why are you doing this?
  • What are you going to do with the result once you have it?
  • Do you think this stage is reasonable?
  • Why is this idea better than that one?
  • You’ve been trying for X period of time. Are you getting anywhere with it?
  • Do you really understand what the problem is about?

After completion:

  • Have you answered the problem?
  • Have you consider all the cases?
  • Did you check your solution?
  • Does it look reasonable?
  • Is there another solution?
  • Could you explain your recommendation to the team?
  • Is there another way to solve the problem?
  • Can you generalize the problem?
  • Can you extend the problem to cover different situations?

Using scaffolding as a management technique obviously takes time. But over time, we begin to “self-scaffold”, in other words, we use the technique to tackle difficult problems when an expert is not available. While time-consuming in the short-term, scaffolding actually improves the independence, efficiency and effectiveness of your staff.

The next time you are working with a new staff member, training an existing member on a task new to them, working with a new team, consider using scaffolding to develop new skills. It takes a while to get the hang of it (I’m always tempted to just “tell them how to do it”), but once you do, you’ll realize some key benefits. Having staff who can think through problems independently is a huge boon to productivity.


Holton, D., & Clarke, D. (2006). Scaffolding and metacognition. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 37(2), 127–143.


4 replies »

  1. My journey through the realms of the business world gave me the opportunity, once only, to learn to think in the fashion you have described above. ALL other leaders taught me to think in the fashion of, “There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there will always be enough time to go back and fix it!” Tried hanging on to the “Scaffolding” approach because I love the “Why’s”, “What’s”, “Where’s”. Getting those answers gave me a sense of knowing what I was supposed to be doing. What a unique idea.
    This process allowed me to form a structured approach to doing anything I tackled and my rebellious mind came up with an appropriate axiom, “Never do today that which you can put off until tomorrow!” Little slow off the start, however, I seldom had to go back to fix my work. It was also satisfying to see my leaders shudder when they read that on my office wall.

  2. Great post – thanks, Colleen. Scaffolding is the essence of coaching, a relationship that is time consuming, as you mentioned, but one that is a strategic investment in future performance. By taking the time now, I will be able to depend on you to a greater extent in the future. Good stuff!

  3. More to come on scaffolding as a coaching technique… Thanks to Skotia and to AMM for their comments. We learn how to think better when we think about how we are thinking!

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