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Note: This blog post is based on Juli Dixon‘s work on “just-in-time” scaffolding versus “just-in-case scaffolding”.

Whenever I plan to teach a lesson, I try to anticipate the foundational skills students will need to know to complete it. For example, if students have to determine which slope is steeper, I think about how they will have to compare fractions to see which had a greater value.

In my first years of teaching, I’d review these foundational skills before we began the lesson. I didn’t really have a clue as to whether or not the kids actually needed this preventative help. I just believed that the lesson would go more smoothly if the students were more familiar with the skills they needed.

At that point I didn’t have the perspective to see all the problems I caused with my way of thinking including:

  • By not giving students a chance to work on the problem before I began the intervention, I potentially wasted time reviewing a concept students may have already understood.
  • I turned what could have been a good discovery lesson into a game of “let’s mindlessly use the skill Mr. Kaplinsky just showed us because why else would he show it to us?”
  • I made it much harder to distinguish between students who truly understood the concept and students who were robotically repeating what I had just reviewed.
  • Perhaps most importantly, I lost the opportunity for students to realize that there was something in mathematics that they wanted to understand but did not. This would have allowed them to ask for help, have a small intervention, and then realize that they learned something that helped them make sense of mathematics. Dan Meyer summarizes this succinctly with the metaphor “If math is the aspirin, what is the headache that would have ever made them want it.”


Fixing This Problem
This reality had been bouncing around in my head for quite some time, but I didn’t have an easy way to articulate all of it until seeing Juli Dixon present at a Solution Tree conference in San Diego. There, she spoke about just-in-time scaffolding versus just-in-case scaffolding.

She describes the difference between the two by stating:

One way to provide differentiation for each and every student is to offer scaffolding that students need at the appropriate time. When you provide scaffolding “just in case” students need it rather than “just in time” —i.e., when students demonstrate the need—you are shortchanging the learning process and failing to provide the rigor that today’s standards demand.

The naming was so perfect that it immediately hit me that I had been a “just-in-case” scaffolder early on in my career. I thought, “These kids might struggle during this lesson, so I am going to review what they need to know, just in case they do.” While I meant well, this was truly about what was more convenient for me and not what was best for students.

What I came to realize (though not label so perfectly) was that students instead need “just-in-time” scaffolding. To me, just-in-time scaffolding is so much better for students than just-in-case scaffolding. After all, would you prefer to have a doctor that prescribed medicine before you met her or a doctor who learned about you and then diagnosed your illness (if you even have one!) before prescribing medicine?

The reality though is that just-in-time scaffolding is more work for the teacher. For example, not every class will need the same amount of scaffolding (and some may not need it at all). So, if you teach multiple periods of the same class, you may find that each of the classes ends a lesson in different places, making it harder for you to manage.


I believe that the benefits (potential time savings from not doing the intervention at all, students who realize they need a specific help and ask for it, etc.) outweigh the costs. What do you think though? What do you agree with? What am I missing something on? Please let me know in the comments below.

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    • Ahh yes. A good worksheet might have just one intricate problem that could necessitate just-in-time scaffolding but would permit the student to focus on one thing at a time. If successful in given time period, one could be offered a second worksheet. And a third? Etcetera. Since when do handouts have to be on 8.5×11?

      • Yeah, it makes me wonder how many problems a worksheet has to have to even be a worksheet. For example, if a worksheet has one or two deeper problems on it, is it even a worksheet anymore?

  1. I’m going to use this idea at a staff professional development today to encourage teachers not to hold a review/cram session the day before giving the test. Our district has embraced the Standards for Mathematical Practices and I’m going to ask teachers which practices are supported in a review session. I think they’ll see that several are actually undermined.

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