How to use modelling successfully in the classroom

Andy Tharby, an English teacher in a secondary school in West Sussex, offers his top tips for effective modelling, based on ideas from his latest book, Making Every Lesson Count: six principles to support great teaching and learning, written with Shaun Allison

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Students constantly create products and performances, be it writing a poem or factoring an equation, passing a rugby ball or designing a website. These are all the result of combinations of procedures, some relatively simple, others highly complex. A key component of great teaching is the explicit modelling of these processes so that students learn how to adapt and apply their knowledge.

Here are five simple strategies that make for high-quality modelling:

  1. Model live
    Demonstrating how to solve a problem is common in some subjects, but can be completely absent in others. If your students write regularly, you should certainly model it live. Scripting a text at the front of the class with your students. Not only will you model subject-specific academic language, but you will also unearth the complex thought processes that contribute to successful writing. It may feel like a messy, stop-start affair but it’s an immensely powerful tool.
  2. Show empathy
    Take a nuanced approach and pre-empt the setbacks and emotional anxieties a task or problem might lead to. Guide your students through strategies that overcome these as you model, using phrases such as: “When I first looked at this problem I didn’t know where to start – and then it hit me that I should …” and: “It’s OK to feel frustrated at this point; I often do.”
  3. Punctuate with questions
    The most effective modelling often goes hand in hand with quick-fire questioning. Two types of enquiry are particularly important: the descriptive question ("What am I doing?") and the explanatory question ("Why am I doing it?"). For example, a PE teacher modelling a javelin throw will ask probing questions such as: “What are my fingers doing as I grip it?” and then, “Why am I gripping it this way?” There will be many more questions as she demonstrates the full run-up and throw.
  4. Use multiple exemplars
    The quality of an exemplar can be hard to judge in isolation, so comparing excellent and poor examples can help students to identify the reasons for success. Multiple exemplars are also important to ensure that you don’t stunt creativity in subjects that call for divergent responses. For example, when teaching creative writing, ensure students see a range of excellent examples to help them realise that high-quality prose comes in many shapes and sizes.
  5. Don’t overdo it
    Beware that modelling doesn’t lead to a dependency culture. Sometimes models should be removed to allow students to think and make mistake for themselves. 

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