Tabak, I. (2004). Synergy: A Complement to Emerging Patterns of Distributed Scaffolding. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13:3, 305-335. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327809jls1303_3


Tabak, in his paper “Synergy: A Complement to Emerging Patterns of Distributed Scaffolding” (2004) argues that distributed scaffolding can support learning that is viewed “as the appropriation of disciplinary ways of knowing, doing and communicating” (p.329). According to the author, distributed scaffolding refers to instructional designs that integrate multiple social and material supports. The author starts by discussing how instructional materials, strategies, and activities can be interpreted as scaffolding. Then Tabac articulates a framework for guiding instructional design practices that target distributed scaffolding. Specifically, he synthesizes his own and other’s work to present the pedagogical and design rationale of three patterns of distributed scaffolding: a) the differentiated scaffolds, b) the redundant scaffolds, and c) the synergistic scaffolds. Moreover, this paper articulates the third pattern, synergistic scaffolds, for addressing “the complexity of appropriating disciplinary ways of knowing, doing and communicating” (p.330).

A summary of Key Points

This paper presents that various instructional materials and activities can be considered scaffolds and that a framework that employs specific design principles in the materials and activities can be considered distributed scaffolding. Specifically, the author argues that the adjective ‘distributed’ should be used to describe specific patterns of scaffolding that can guide the design of rich learning environments. One principle that is introduced in this paper and complement earlier works is the synergistic scaffold that facilitates multiple supports.

Design principles

A framework that can guide the design of distributed scaffolding employs the following complimentary patterns of distributed scaffolding:

  • Differentiated scaffolding: “its need is addressed by its own scaffold” (p.315).
  • Redundant scaffolding: “providing multiple scaffolds for each need” (p.317).
  • Synergistic scaffolding: “multiple scaffolds target the same need” (p.319).


Example work

One example comes from the Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) study of wooden blocks. Wood designed a toy containing 21 blocks that combine over six layers to form a pyramid. The puzzle has specific characteristics that extend and limit the range of actions and errors. The tutor serves as scaffolding and the scaffolding functions are emerging by the materials as well.

Discussion Questions

  1. How distributed scaffolding can be implemented in the instructional design of computer-based learning environments?
  1. Are current web-based or computer-based tools applying distributing scaffolding in learning environments?
  1. Can you provide an example of a game or learning environment that uses one or all principles of distributed scaffolding?


Additional Resources

  • Sadhana Puntambekar (n.d). Distributed scaffolding interplay of the teacher, peers, curriculum and text in the classroom [Webinar]. In ISLS Naples webinar series. Retrieved from http://isls-naples.psy.lmu.de/intro/index.html


  • Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. 17, 89-100.


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