The art of modelling… it’s all in the handover.

Some of the most interesting discussions I’ve had with teachers in recent times have been about the challenge of making modelling work so that students all learn to do the things they are modelling. In one case it was in English. The teacher found it frustrating that, despite feeling she was doing the ‘right things’ in her modelling, several students still couldn’t get going. Over a series of instructional coaching discussions we identified what was happening. If you had a video of her alone, you’d see a teacher giving a really clear exposition of how to write the paragraph in the form required. As a knowledgable adult writer, it made total sense to me. But, if you were to see it through the eyes of one of the struggling students, it was like a novice dancer watching an expert: impressive but overwhelming. Put simply, there were too many steps to learn all at once. Initially the teacher had asked the class to copy down the exemplar as she live modelled it – but we identified that in doing this students were not mentally engaging with her explanatory talk; they were just focused on copying the words correctly. Not enough thinking was being done. She changed approach, broke it down into even smaller steps and got students to discuss and then practise their own version of each small step – phrase by phrase. It took longer but the results were far better.

I’ve had similar discussions in other contexts too. Ollie Lovell discusses the issue in relation to ‘worked examples’ in his excellent Cognitive Load Theory In Action book.. – see a discussion of it in the video here. (view from 27.35)

As Ollie explains, worked examples are not examples students do for practice after a teacher explains some model answers; they are examples teachers and students work through together before students then practise independently.

As with the English modelling example, the learning happens in the extended handover with the teacher carefully managing the cognitive load and reducing scaffolding slowly, step by step. An example of this is the use of backward fading in maths problems – but the general idea applies elsewhere.

One way to thing of this is in terms of a handover, baton-style:

A baton exchange is only successful if the receiver get a firm grip. If you look from a distance, it might appear instantaneous. But learning doesn’t form in that way with knowledge leaping from the teacher to the student:

Watching a teacher perform a task doesn’t necessarily mean a student can do it, even if they have seen exactly what the teacher has done and heard them explain it really clearly. There’s just too much to take in, to process and turn into knowledge they can deploy themselves.

What is needed is a much more extended hand-over where the teacher works with the students to do the task together:

Zoom right in on that baton hand-over. It’s not instaneous; a crucial time passes when both people are holding the baton together. In that brief moment, they are communicating through the touch: Have you got it? No, not yet. Ok, I’m still with you. Grip harder. Have you got it now. Nearly, keeping holding, I’m nearly there.. Ok. You’re ready.. Off you go. Yes, I’m ready, let go. I already have…. you’re away.

In a real world lesson context the ‘We do it together’ process is the key to modelling. Ollie Lovell refers to this as the ‘alternation strategy’. This is where students get a sense of what it feels like to do the task successfully, working towards the moment of independence. Students who struggle need this to be longer, with more smaller steps, more iterations of to and fro until they are up and running. This period will be fuelled by lots of checking for understanding and guided practice on the details. I’ve met teachers who hold back from this – they think of it as spoon-feeding and spoon-feeding is a bad thing. I have to say to them – no, it’s not; it’s ok. It’s teaching! Don’t drop that baton for fear of over-helping. Of course you have to let go in the end… but only when they’re ready.

So, if modelling isn’t quite firing for you, the answer is likely to be that you need to break it down even more, getting students to practise each step with you alongside them even more before you move onto the next one. As with learning a dance, once you know the steps you can then start to link them together, to practise several at once until, eventually you have the whole dance. Sometimes you just need to practise the beginning, the middle or the end – and the same is true for writing and maths problems. You don’t always need to start from the beginning – so varying the point at which modelling begins can be a useful thing to consider.

7 min summary.

Update. Here’s a fabulous graphic from David Goodwin.


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