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.

Conclusion
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.

1. This is a very helpful distinction. Maybe that’s a hidden bug of worksheets, which nudge us towards just-in-case scaffolding.

• YR says:

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?

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

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?

2. Cathy says:

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.

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

Good luck!

3. With the mathematics concepts being hierarchical. Is it possible for teachers to know what the students need to know to understand the current topic , given their performance in the previous one/s? Just in case scaffolding is not informed or based on evidence.

• Robert Kaplinsky says:

Short answer: yes, often.

Long answer: So you can absolutely think about what foundational skills are needed but after that it gets tricky. Some kids might have them. Some might not. Some might think they have them and don’t. Some might appear to have them but they’ve got misconceptions. And it could be different skills in all different classes. So if you spend time reviewing skill A, there could be 60% of kids who don’t need that and you’re wasting their time.

It’s complex!

4. Deb says:

I am pleased to have stumbled across Juli Dixon’s article and then be connected to this one. Over the past few years, I have been frustrated trying to find the right way to phrase “just in time” scaffolding to special education teachers who work in the general education classroom. These educators insist on pre-teaching every lesson and then providing “just in case” supports when the students are experiencing the problem solving. —They wipe out any opportunity for students with an IEP to participate in true problem solving. It seems that the special education teachers by and large in my state are instructed in college to never let their students experience productive struggle. They seem to equate productive struggle with scaffolding without any struggle.
I wonder how prevalent my situation is. I believe that special education teachers need to be taught in their college programs how to provide “just in time” support.

• Shelley Nash says:

As a sped teacher, I agree with you! I find that too often we think the role of sped is to remove the struggle instead of finding the supports and services to get through the struggle with an appropriate amount of struggle.

5. Kelli says:

Yes! “Just in case” scaffolding also robs the student of the opportunity to connect this new learning to what they already know. When they get to make those connections, the learning sticks so much better.

6. Jen says:

What does just-in-time look like, given the unfinished learning that happened during distance learning? In Oregon our students were out of school from March 2020 and didn’t return in person until September 2021. I think the knee-jerk reaction is to teach all students remedial skills, since it’s almost a guarantee that most have not mastered grade-level skills with any kind of deep understanding. I have 7th graders working with skill mastery more like that of 3rd or 4th grade, some at as low as 1st grade, and a handful at grade level. I’m trying to support a new teaching partner who wants to have students practice fluency primarily, and I’m trying to encourage her to still work with higher DOK problems, but I also want to make sure I’m supporting students with *needed* scaffolds.

7. Dr. Jessica Sustaita says:

I interviewed a special education teacher today who said one of their strengths was their ability to “differentiate instruction on the fly”. I definitely read into this response as them winging it, not planning/internalizing their lessons in advance, and/or not anticipating misconceptions and developing a plan to prevent them. After reading this post, I can see their response through a different lense. So powerful.