Modeling Is a Must For Creating a Culture of Learning

I don’t often wear my mom hat and teacher hat at the same time anymore, but I did last night. My five year old is not yet in kindergarten; between his summer birthday, his anxiety in preschool, and a speech delay, we decided to delay his start and sent him to preschool for a second year. He now attends preK and, for the most part, is thriving. It was the best decision we ever have made.

But, he doesn’t always thrive at home with his mother who just so happens to be a teacher. There are a few reasons for this: we both are perfectionists, we both are stubborn, we both are Type A personalities, we both interrupt one another, and we both think the other one is wrong much of the time. While this is far from a recipe for success, we make it work. We make plans before attempting to work together on arts and crafts or learning letters and numbers or writing. We decide who is going to do which job, and we often take turns. And, we know how to tell each other when we need a short break.

Honestly, I think our problems when working together on tasks that require his focus and concentration and my patience and understanding actually stemmed from my role as a secondary teacher. I know a lot more about older minds than younger minds, and I certainly don’t know what to do frustration by horizontal.integrationwith a kid who barely grasps sight words. I fall into that old secondary teacher assumption that the kid already should know how to do this stuff. So, we often end up more frustrated than anything when completing our shared tasks.

Or, we used to end up more frustrated than anything, until I remembered the number one rule for teachers: model first. I don’t know if I forgot this rule because I considered the tasks to be simple enough for him to do without any modeling from me, or if I really do separate my teacher self from my mom self, and thus allowed all of my classroom know-how to sit on the back burner when working with my own child. In any event, we had a breakthrough last night when making Grandparents Day cards because I used the modeling strategy.

Modeling is so simple. Yet, there are scores of teachers who don’t do it often enough because they think they shouldn’t have to. I can attest to this from my year as an instructional coach, and in my experience, secondary teachers were the most hesitant to model. In fact, many secondary teachers seem to believe what I did: they already should know that, so I can teach them this. While that may be true, and we wish students would have learned the concepts and skills prior to entering our rooms to learn our content and curriculum, that’s not always the case. Often, it’s far from it. We need to meet the kids where they are, and that means we have to understand that they may not be defying us or being lazy: they truly may not know where to begin.

After eleven years in a secondary classroom, I cannot think of a better instructional strategy than modeling. Instead of telling kids what we want them to do, as I had been doing with my son, we must show them what to do. As the stakes get higher for our students and ourselves, modeling is going to be a necessity.

The Common Core Standards have shifted skills and concepts and vocabulary from upper grades into lower grades at lightning-fast speed. That’s just one of the issues with the Common Core. Another issue, especially pertinent to English and social studies classes, is the complexity of the texts students are reading as a result of the Common Core. Kids’ reading levels don’t magically increase just because we put higher-level texts in front of them. As a result, these kids may not know enough reading strategies to get through the texts; we need to show them. (You may want to read “Common Core: Will it hurt struggling readers?” for more on this issue.) Math teachers face a similar challenge, as higher-level Algebra II and Geometry concepts and skills make their way into Algebra I.

If you’re unfamiliar with modeling, it is a teaching strategy in which the teacher does most of the work first. The goal is to use modeling in a scaffolded manner: move from the teacher does, to the teacher and students do, to the students do (often referred to as I Do, We Do, You Do). I paired modeling with thinking aloud, so that students could hear my thoughts while I First grade reading by woodleywonderworksworked through the concept or skill; this explicit teaching was most effective. My monologue was just as important for the auditory learners as my actions were for the visual learners.

I also incorporated a component for the kinesthetic learners so the kids could put my instruction to the test; this signaled the beginning of We Do, and the students knew that they could begin working with partners, or in small groups, and that I was nearby to help them. I also firmly believe in “teachable moments,” so if I saw students completing a task in a unique way, I’d direct the class’s attention to that group, which would take a turn at being the “sage on the stage” and explain what they were doing to the entire class; this provided another We Do moment, but this time, it came from the students’ perspectives. On the other hand, I also could stop everyone and go back to I Do if I saw that they weren’t ready for the We Do yet.

Does modeling take more time? Yes. Do you need to prepare to spend a day or two on We Do before giving students independent work or practice time? More than likely. But, the benefits far outweigh the time spent because you’ll find students collaborating more and relying less on you. You will be able to front load your instruction with an I-Do format for all students first. Then, you will have the opportunity to interact even more with students while you work your way through the We Do; formative assessment is key here, as you move about the room to see where the partners/groups are in their work and which skills/concepts require a little more time. Finally, when the majority of the students are ready, you can set them loose on their You Do tasks and assignments, and you will be able to spend more time with the kids who need more support in the We Do phase.

Modeling resources from around the web:

Now, for the bad news about modeling. Your administrators may ask what’s taking you so long to get through your curriculum and the standards. But, if you’re in front of those students to help them learn, rather than to show them how to pass a test, you have a great reason: you’re modeling and meeting the students where they are, and you are providing support for the students who need it while allowing other students to work more independently.

The Common Core and Pearson may want you to focus on test prep, but if you are in the “business” of teaching to teach, and you want to inspire learners instead of create test takers, modeling is a strategy you need to adopt, if you haven’t already. Don’t frustrate your students as I frustrated my son: show them what to do and then support them as needed until they are able to do it on their own.

Frustrated child image via Flickr by horizon.integration
Classroom image via Flickr by woodleywonderworks

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