Eggen and Kauchak’s in ‘Educational Psychology’ define modeling as “changes in people that result from observing the actions of others.” In short, it is a game of imitation whereby we, the expert, explain the process of the action we wish students to undertake and perform the action live.

It may seem grand and unusual when applied to ones own subject, but is likely the most ancient skill of the teacher. We model all the time whether we realise it or not, in passing pens to students not throwing them, and in explaining how we unpick a question. From Bandura to Bjork, it has been found to be one of the most effective ways in which skills and behaviours are transferred. 

I think that humans know that this is one of the best ways to learn intuitively, yet when we model live often 3 or 4 students will not be paying full attention and need reminders. It seems odd to me that they can’t see the value in watching the thing they’re about to struggle with – which leaves one simple question ‘why?’ Why would you choose to ignore a useful working of the problem, when you know it helps. 

I asked one such student recently if he thought my talking through things like this was useful to him, he replied that it was one of the few ways he learns at the same speed as others. Yet, he frequently doesn’t listen fully to it. As exasperating as this is, something he said triggered a possible explanation. Almost throwaway, he said “I didn’t listen today because it didn’t seem that hard, until I had to start it myself.” 

The student hadn’t realised how far away excellence was, perhaps because he hadn’t bought into my explanation, or because he was satisfied with his current ability. In his book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence,’ Rom Berger describes, how excellence is ‘transformative.’

“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. After students have had a taste of excellence, they’re never quite satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.” (‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger)

I believe that this is the case, but I think perception of the task at hand might feed into that. For some students a sense of things being easy might be incredibly appealing. Whereas for another, they may need to feel that they are drowning before asking for a rubber ring, or even seeing the value in one. This could happen across the ability range because it is a character trait not an academic one. 

This does leave us with an issue, one of judgement. Do we throw all students in the deep end before we model, while simultaneously telling others it will be a doddle for them? That seems unsustainable. Inevitably, demotivation would occur in significant number of students and maintaining positive relationships in the classroom would become extremely difficult when some students seem ‘special.’

Perhaps the solution is just to make it clear that a task is difficult, yet point to skills involved students already have and show how they support this new text. One solution to this, according to Agodini et al. (2009), is a ‘well-sequenced curriculum to ensure that students have the prior knowledge they need to master new ideas.’ This enables challenge to be clear and real, without cognitive load impacting on progress.

It is also important to know the students who may ignore, and hook them in. The student in question will be reminded of our previous conversation. The whole class will be complimented on the fact that I know they can deal with this extremely difficult work, but I will also prove they are ready by pointing to the pre requisites they’ve mastered. That will also operate as a useful check point as to whether any misconceptions exist. 

Additionally, I may also start with a high quality example and then unpick how this was achieved. It may involve too much switching of attention to do this simultaneously with live modelling and so I may need to spread this over two parts of the lesson, or even interleave over two or three lessons. 

One thing is for certain I will not be launching into another well planned, clearly thought out piece of modelling without first laying some clearer foundations and ‘sussing’ out the room.