By Teachers, For Teachers
I learned how to tie a tie by watching my dad do it every morning. At first I barely noticed his actions; steadily, I began to pay closer attention; and then one day I stood next to him with my own tie and meticulously imitated his movements. The same is true for shaving, throwing a football, cutting the grass, tying my shoes, and a host of other behaviors. Just watching his example, along with his explanations, helped me learn dozens of skills.
These fundamental teaching strategies – observing others’ examples – are a crucial element in the classroom. Unfortunately, teachers often overlook these teaching strategies as a core principle for helping their students learn. But when we want to pass on information and skills to someone else, it is essential to recognize how important sharing various kinds of models is.
Educational modeling can be defined as giving students a demonstration or example of a process or product that is representative of the skill or content they are expected to perform themselves. It’s more than just giving a visual representation of content; rather, a model is a product or process students can imitate to develop their own skills and understanding.
There are numerous benefits for providing students with examples to supplement our raw instruction. First, models help students see what it is that they’re supposed to produce. We could abstractly explain to students how to perform a certain task, like write a paragraph, but when we give them an actual sample paragraph, they can literally “See for themselves” what their own product should look like. When we combine the general explanation of a task with a concrete model of what their process or product should look like, we give students a direct image of their targeted outcome. It makes for easy guidance and comparison, as students can orchestrate their work to emulate the model and ask themselves, “Does mine match the example or do I need to make improvements?”
Also, models can help students see the relevance of the tasks we ask them to do. It might be difficult for students to understand before doing something what the point is. Just ask the Karate Kid when he was frustrated painting Mr. Miagi’s fence. But a clear demonstration of what the outcome looks like will help students see how the individual tasks they’re performing contribute to their growing set of skills and knowledge.
Also, we can’t forget that sometimes we lose sight as teachers of what our assignments look like to students. Creating or finding an example of our own requirements helps us sit in the student’s chair for a few minutes and understand our task from that lens. It’s not uncommon to have to recalibrate or rethink our tasks once we do them for ourselves, so even the process of model creation can help us create more meaningful and coherent tasks. Plus, doing our own assignments can help validate our competence and expertise to students.
Modeling is an effective teaching strategy for almost any skill we may want our students to develop. Whether it’s reading aloud, giving a sample speech, walking through the thought process for solving a word problem, troubleshooting technology, discussing an idea, composing a story, or using a piece of lab equipment, “Showing” rather than just “Telling” students what to do will enhance their understanding.
There’s no single type of method of modeling. Consider your course and decide which elements would be most helpful to provide a sample of the product or process. When selecting models to use in your classroom, you might be able to draw from professional, student, or personal examples.
Professional samples. How would a talented, accomplished professional go about a task like this? Find samples of adult professionals performing the skill or creating the content you want your students to do. Not only do they get to see a top-notch illustration, but it will help them see how the tasks they’re performing look in the “Real world” beyond the classroom.
Student samples. Have you done something like this a previous year? Keep examples of quality work from former students and show current students what their predecessors have accomplished. Of course, make sure you get permission from former students before sharing their work with others. Or if a current student has performed a task well, with their permission share their work with the whole class as a model.
Personal samples. If you can create your own products or model your own processes for your class, then they will have another opportunity to see what it is they’re trying to emulate. You could complete a task that’s specific to the current assignment or activity students are doing, or draw relevant examples from your own personal life.
Also think about what it is that you could potentially model to students. Nearly everything that you want students to accomplish, whether a thought process, a skill, a product, or understanding a bit of knowledge, can have some kind of a model accompanying your general instruction. I know I’ve mentioned these above, but let’s break down these distinctions of what to model:
Products. Ask yourself, “What do I want students to create or produce?” A model for this would help students literally “see” what they’re aiming at when they work. They can then orient their creation process towards producing something comparable to what they see.
Process. Along with end products, however, are the processes of thought and implementation that go into creating them. So it’s important to help students see what they could think or how they could step-by-step produce a valuable result. This is fantastic to consider for all kinds of elements students need to master, including reading out loud, arithmetic steps, science labs, composition, and problem solving.
Skills. Skills, like processes, are not just a one-time kind of action that students perform to check off of a list. Rather, they are actions existing on a spectrum that reflects their depth and quality. Students ought to be exposed to a variety of examples demonstrating different levels of proficiency with skills they’re developing. This heavily relates to skills like reading, writing, problem solving, critical thinking, and technical abilities.
Content. Although content is often interwoven with skills, processes, and products, ultimately there are just some things that we want students to “Know.” Student exposure to ways this content can be learned as well as ways content can be applied helps them develop more ownership over how they go about learning this raw material.
Remember that even though most of what we focus on is school-related, we are not limited to sharing models of strictly academic achievements. Consider how you might also share products, processes, skills, and content related to behavior and character traits as well. We want students to conduct themselves with maturity, respect, and diligence – so can we expose students to models of these attributes?
When giving examples, sharing a variety is always a plus. Since our models help illustrate to students what it is they’re striving toward, try to find a combination of personal, professional, and student samples that can inspire your students. Giving one model will help students picture their work along that one narrow line. But providing several models that demonstrate that there’s “More than one way to skin a cat” will help students find the method that’s best combined with their own creativity and ambitions.
Remember that it’s just as important to give bad examples, or examples of what not to do, as it is to give high quality examples. Examples are tools for giving shape to the otherwise general instructions we give. So that shape can best be wrought when we demonstrate for students what both the upper and lower bounds are.
I recently showed students two sample paragraphs, one that modeled what I did want students to do and one that modeled what I didn’t want them to do. When students saw the “Bad” example, they realized they had been guilty of making some of the mistakes in it and were able to see for themselves what to avoid. The “Good” example showed them what they ought to do instead. This combination works well when students reflect on their own performance, giving them both high and low elements to compare. (And I never use student work as a “bad” example).
Finally, make sure that you don’t just hand out or post up examples and assume students get the message. Models are meant to be discussed and explained, so students can acquire an understanding of what about the model is or isn’t appropriate. I try to include lots of discussion surrounding the examples I give, and if I can, I put the examples into a form that students can study outside of the classroom when they’re doing their own work as well.
Now, one very fair critique of using models is that when we show students the “Good” examples of what to accomplish, this narrows the students’ opportunity for creativity. This critique is absolutely true. Models, when used effectively, give students a target toward which to drive their efforts. The result, though, is that many other possibilities for processes and products are eliminated.
So yes, models are great for helping students achieve a certain level of competence, but they also may constrain what would otherwise be unique student approaches. I frequently remind students (and myself) that models show the basics. Even the exceptional examples I give illustrate only certain elements. I try to share a variety of examples with students so that they see the range of possibilities, but I also encourage them to “Color outside the lines” and, if they have an idea they’d like to develop that doesn’t match one of the models, they have the freedom to do so.
It would truly be unfortunate if, instead of students struggling with a task and producing a great, original piece of work, they all ended up producing cookie-cutter work that looks exactly like my example. But on the other hand, models are for students who would struggle and fail, for students who need a guide, and for students who are learning about a particular element for the first time. Although we want to provide models to help students achieve, we must avoid habits with models that would expect all students’ work to look exactly the same and reduce their originality.
How do you use models and examples effectively in your classroom? Share your experiences in the comments below! We’d love for you to contribute to our community.
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.