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Friday, 19 July 2019

You are here: Home > Online Articles > What Works in Scaffolding Student Inquiry? Lessons From the Visual Arts



What Works in Scaffolding Student Inquiry? Lessons From the Visual Arts

By Gordon Eldridge


One of the key themes I have returned to a number of times over the years in this column is the difficulty of deciding how much and what kind of guidance to provide students in order to optimize learning. It is quite possibly the quintessential question in education.

We know that experts have both metacognitive strategies and conceptual schema for structuring their inquiries and dealing with the large quantities of information they encounter as they do. For those who are less than expert, however, embarking on an inquiry without some level of guidance is both daunting and far less productive than with appropriate scaffolding. The results of a small research project in the visual arts conducted by Mary Erickson of Arizona State University and Laura Ramson Hales of Scottsdale Arts may give us some direction as we continue to reflect on the issue of guidance.

Erickson and Ramson Hales conceptualized guidance as including both “hard scaffolds”—supports that can be anticipated and planned in advance based on an understanding of typical student learning pathways—and “soft scaffolds”—supports that are constructed along the way as teachers diagnose ongoing levels of student understanding.

The hard scaffolds they utilized were of two types. “Strategic scaffolds” included the explicit teaching of the skills of inquiry. In this study, students were explicitly taught to construct and prioritize different types of questions using question formulation techniques from Rothstein and Santana (2014). A further strategic scaffold was the use of pre-planned student reflection journals.

“Conceptual scaffolding” included the organization of content knowledge around broader concepts. Erickson’s (2016) topics for art inquiry provided a framework for this organization. Erickson’s topics fall under the broad categories of artwork, artist’s background, connections among artwork and meanings, and goals. The topics support students in making connections between artists’ intentions and processes, as well as connections and comparisons with other works of art. Soft scaffolds were faded across the study in order to gradually transfer responsibility for self-regulation to the students.

The study included monthly day-long visits to a museum where 34 high school students engaged in extended viewing of artwork and conversations with artists. The study included the following questions. When supported with scaffolded inquiry instruction:

- do students’ abilities to inquire about art improve?

- do students’ inspirations for their own art expand?

What were the results of the study?

Results using a pre-test to post-test method demonstrated that on the post-test:
- students asked more questions overall and significantly asked more extended questions rather than yes/no questions
- the quality of student questions improved significantly
- students asked more conceptually deep questions, such as those relating to culture, style, theme, artist’s intention, and artist’s inspiration
- students identified significantly more higher-order inspirations for their own art, including intentions related to theme, style, and intentions.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

While the particular conceptual framework provided by Erickson’s topics for art inquiry is obviously specific to the visual arts, the way of thinking about scaffolding that underpinned this study seems relevant for all subjects. The combination of conceptual hard scaffolding (selecting and sequencing content to focus on salient concepts) and strategic hard scaffolding (explicitly teaching specific inquiry skills and providing students with structured reflection) with soft scaffolding that responded to the needs of individuals and groups of students based on ongoing diagnosis of levels of understanding was shown to be highly effective. It also seems to be eminently transferable to most classroom settings.


Erickson, M. & Ramson Hales, L. (2018). Increasing Art Understanding and Inspiration Through Scaffolded Inquiry. Studies in Art Education Vol 59, No. 2, pp. 106–125.

Erickson, M. (2016) Introduction to art inquiry. Online resource.

Rohstein, D., & Santana, L. (2014) Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Cambridge, MA : Harvard UP.

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