Classroom Modeling: Scaffolding Learning or Stifling?
By Amanda Miska
Slumped at my cluttered desk, I reluctantly open another student writer’s notebook. Not again, I groan inwardly. The folded stationary, complete with envelope pasted in. The heading, “Dear Abby.” The fancy-scissored edges. Another replica of the entry I created that I spontaneously modeled for the class one day. The assignment was complete. Check. On time. Check. Legible. Check. But where was the imagination, the personal investment? The most significant checkbox, in my mind, was left empty.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I didn’t want to be flattered. I wanted my students to find their own creative ways of making connections with literature. I thought I was being helpful, and maybe, to an extent, I was. Some students would have wasted class reading and writing time because they “couldn’t think of anything.” This was a common mantra of my lowest class. But what about the creative minds I stifled because my model allowed them to instead quickly and almost thoughtlessly complete an assignment? A question began to swirl and form in my brain. This is critical moment where my exploration of modeling in the classroom begins.
Figure 1: My notebook
entry and my student’s entry
What is modeling?
Eggen and Kauchak’s Educational Psychology defines modeling as “changes in people that result from observing the actions of others.” (236) This text also claims that modeling is a key element of social cognitive theory, which “examines the processes involved as people learn observing others and gradually acquire control over their own behavior.”(234) Each of these definitions was vague to me, making me want to know: what do other people think about modeling? I decided to poll some of my fellow educators and teaching interns, asking the question: “What do you think of when you hear the phrase classroom modeling?” (See Appendix A) I received back some very similar, as well as very diverse, responses:
“I think of demonstrating an assignment or an activity for the class before asking them to complete it.”
“The teachers showing the students what they should do by doing it herself.”
“I think of the subtle things we do as people that others see as possible additions to their own identities and ways of being.”
“Modeling to me means providing students with examples or modeling precisely how to do something.”
“I think of explaining an activity and then demonstrating myself.”
“This means that I exhibit the same behavior I expect of my students.”
“The stint I did working as a nude model for Penn State art classes.”
(I am not downplaying the last two responses—I was intentionally ambiguous with regard to my question in order to get a variety of responses.) It is evident that classroom modeling is not just one set method of instruction—it can be used in a number of ways, depending on the classroom and the philosophies and experiences of the educator implementing it. Reading through the answers to this survey question made my exploration into the use of modeling even more intriguing. I categorized the responses, and created a list of different ways modeling can be used in classrooms.
Different Types of Modeling
Reading short stories or paragraphs aloud can help demonstrate author point-of-view (first person, second person, third person omniscient, etc.). Sometimes student need to hear the point of view modeled for them in order to understand. After hearing it aloud, they may easier be able to decide which view their own novel or story is from. Another way is to model types of writing, such as informative or persuasive. One intern shared her experience:
“Earlier in the year, I assigned an essay with a specific theme. The students were required to use ethos, pathos, and logos. They did not understand how to incorporate ethos, pathos, and logos until I shared my example. After reading my essay to the class, the expectations were much more clear.”
Until she modeled specifically how to use these appeals, her students did not understand how they were supposed to complete the assignment. After she shared her model, students had more direction to complete their own papers.
This is the most explicit form of modeling. In this instance, I would do the project I am going to assign to the class, and then show them my model after I present the assignment to them in order for them to get an idea of “what I have in mind.” This form of modeling is what I often discuss as being detrimental to creativity because students will do what will please the teacher, based on what they saw, instead of taking the project in their own direction and being challenged to think and design. My experience with the mimicked writer’s notebook entry would fit into this category—this is the type of modeling I noticed could cause some problems, so it began my inquiry here.
In my classroom, students had a chance to see how the mentor/intern relationship worked. They would see cooperation, sharing of responsibilities, co-creation of assignments/activities, and even struggles that my mentor and I would go through together. Because my mentor and I had a strong working relationship and related to each other well, the students had a positive model of what it meant to work together and be a member of a respectful classroom community.
One intern shared with me a unit she developed in which modeling played a huge role:
“I implemented a Teacher for a Day activity into the classroom, which worked so well! The students acted as teachers for a few minutes teaching the class and teachers about persuasive techniques. Instead of me teaching the class, which can get a bit monotonous at times, the students modeled the teachers and worked collaboratively with one another.”
Students have been seeing teachers in action for years and years, through elementary, middle, and now high school. They have seen models of different teaching styles, without maybe consciously realizing it. Allowing them to teach their peers and us is a great way not only to build confidence, but also to mix things up in the classroom.
[Oblivious] Modeling—subtle behaviors
Like the mannerisms of a parent can pass, like osmosis, over to children, so our behaviors in the classroom, good or bad, can be passed on to our students. For instance, consider the simple occurrence of chewing gum while speaking in front of students: we may not realize it, but they could see chewing gum while formally addressing the class as “okay.” Students see us everyday—some of them even wait for us to mess up. As educators, we need to remember that we are examples to youth and that we pass on much of who we are to our students.
Modeling can prompt students to respond in a different way to an assignment, if there is already an array of examples. An example model from a previous year can spark an idea for a student who “feels stuck” or “can’t think of anything.” Also, students can build off of the ideas they see presented, often improving on what’s been done before. During the unit I created, which focused on choice novels, students were assigned to create a tri-fold with their reading groups that would serve as a backdrop for the independent projects each one of them would also create. The projects would then be placed like a museum exhibit, with the tri-fold serving as the description and overview of their book for the rest of the class. As we were preparing for a three-day in-class tri-fold workshop, my mentor and I brought in tri-folds designed by students last year for a research project and set them up around the room for our students to examine. While the assignments were totally different, the students were able to see a variety of ways to visually represent their novel information, from 3-D headings to use of color to over-use of glitter. This method of modeling proved to be very successful, as it generated many ideas for our groups to work from.
When my English 9 students were assigned to create a tri-fold based on their choice novel, they had very few directions. The use of this method of modeling had a positive effect on the students’ creativity, as seen in Figure 2.
Modeling values (respect, kindness, honesty)
In an article entitled Modeling Respect in the Classroom, author Geralynn Eurich discusses several ways in which we can model respect in the classroom, including modeling respect for other adults who enter the room, respect for individual students with regards to discipline or answering questions, and also respecting anyone who “has the floor” when addressing the class. (120) My mentor also pointed out this key form of modeling to me in our advanced class when we had a “reader for the day” who would begin each class period. One day, as someone began to read, I wrote in my journal or graded vocabulary quizzes as they read. My mentor approached me later and told me that she likes to give them her full attention because it is hard for them to stand before their peers, and we need to, as teachers, demonstrate what it means to be a respectful audience. I had never thought of it that way, but I learned something very important that day and it is a lesson I have carried into all my classes: when someone “has the floor”, I look at them, I really listen to them, I nod, I smile, and I make sure I am not talking to my neighbor. This is a model I have found my students, as most 9th graders, really need.
I was encouraged by a particular response I received on a survey from one influential educator. He described his experience with modeling this way:
“I think one of the most positive experiences I had was when I wrote an essay for my students live using an overhead and many transparencies—today I would use a computer and projector—it was hard to do, and it was just the first draft, but I wanted to model my composing process for them. Many felt they had never had an insight into another person’s composing process.”
I too, on a day when I was becoming particularly frustrated with fifteen uninterested, brains (fifteen pairs of eyes glazing over), decided to model my thought process in writing an opening paragraph. I was able to show them that I can write an introduction paragraph as I think aloud—I can move my thesis around (does it make more sense at the beginning, middle or end?), cross out unnecessary information (gently removing the B.S…unlike in this paper, perhaps!), and correct any errors of spelling, punctuation, or other mechanics. (See Appendix B) The students seemed fascinated to watch me think and compose so quickly (which I honestly credited to years of practicing). This process gave students not only an idea to build from in writing a paper that defined who they are, but it also gave them confidence as writers and I think, hope for the future. I’ve probably used hundreds of transparencies this year modeling the revision process with students. Revision, to them, is an abstract idea, one that they can’t quite grasp. But when I work with writing on a transparency, in real time, and they see and hear my thinking process, revising makes much more sense to them. Thinking aloud for the students as I do this helps the students to better understand why they need to revise and how to revise, making it easier for them to implement their own revisions. Another teacher explained it this way:
“This strategy [modeling] has been invaluable in teaching writing. I typically Xerox on overheads student writing or my own writing so students can have a concrete example of a writing technique I want them to master.”
I also copied student work onto transparencies in order for students to see positive models of the writing process and product created by their peers.
This year with our English 9 classes, we created a whole unit of reading short stories and using reading strategies—important techniques that have come to inform their reading all year long. When I am teaching a text now, I use the very same strategies—especially jotting down questions or comments on post-it notes when I can’t write in the book! The students see that do this, and that it is a valuable method of learning. Often times, we would pass post-it notes out to our students to emphasize their need to dialogue with the text. Modeling these strategies with every text we looked at has helped our students to become stronger readers this year.
I had the opportunity to teach students how to make web page, as part of the technological competencies they needed to learn in 9th grade, as made by the district. Using the overhead projector and the teacher workstation, I has students model exactly what I did, step by step, to set up their web pages, as the web page program was new to most of them and there were specific competencies, like creating links to other pages and learning how to import images, that they needed to know for the next year. From there, students were able to create their pages, choosing colors and text styles, adding their favorite links, and laying out each page. While the methods to achieve the competencies had to be mimicked, students used their freedom of design to create personal, creative web pages, and enjoyed themselves as they were also fulfilling the competency requirements.
Figure 3: A student hard at work on his
reading and writing web page
Figure 3: A student hard at work on his reading and writing web page
I never realized that my four or five speech classes in college (which I dreaded and, at that time, hated with a passion) would help make me a confident presenter—being in front of several classes daily has made me used to the role of speaker/presenter. Enunciating, gesturing, speaking clearly, and elaborating on ideas are all techniques of successful public speaking that I hope to be passing on to my own students by somewhat-oblivious modeling. When it came time for students to present their detailed research projects to their classmates, we talked about many of these techniques, which they had already seen modeled for them, but had not been discussed explicitly. In turn I think they became more confident presenters.
There are many more benefits than drawbacks, although the drawbacks can be very serious considerations. It was encouraging for me to see the good that has come to my classroom from modeling as I reflect here on its ups and downs.
Modeling can often make the unclear clearer. In English class, when teaching
about good writing, we often use the mantra “Show, don’t tell” to get our students to write more vividly. We need to take some of our own advice in the classroom to make our own lessons more vivid sometimes! While showing every assignment or activity would become monotonous (as mentioned in the drawbacks section), some activities beg modeling because they cannot be adequately expressed in words. One obvious example of showing, not telling took place when our students were reading Romeo and Juliet aloud. Saying “Bobby, you need to read this section more gruffly because Capulet is angry” did not have as great of an effect as pausing and reading the lines in a gruff voice for the class. The students were able to see what it meant to be gruff—a description that cannot as specifically be put into words.
Models can help teachers measure the difficulty/work load of their students: gives insight into their assignments. One seasoned teacher talked about another kind of modeling she decided to try:
“This year I have done something new in that I have required myself to do all of their assignments in “real” time. It has given me an insight into the workload I am giving them, the usefulness of the assignments, and the difficulty and problems involved. It is really helping me gauge my instruction and unit planning.”
This form of modeling the completion of our own work would be especially helpful for beginning teachers, like me, in order to figure out if our activities and assignments are going to be grueling, engaging, boring, or even too easy.
Reading and writing with students creates a sacred environment and brings value to these pivotal activities in the English classroom. On the first day of school, students in our class were told to purchase a one-subject notebook that would come to be known as their Writer’s Notebook. The task of the Writer’s Notebook (WN, for short) was generally a prompt to write about quietly for ten minutes. As our students would write, my mentor and I would use our own WN’s as well. Sometimes, if so moved, we would write along with the given prompt. Others times we took these quiet moments to reflect on how our day or lesson was going. These ten minutes of silence became sacred to us—and the students as well. They saw us writing (often frantically) and they valued what we valued, which was silence and the practice of disciplined writing. Not only did this practice make them more fluent writers, it also turned into a settling, focusing time for students at the beginning of the class period.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin, and though modeling can be quite effective in the classroom, it also has its drawbacks. For instance, one concern is that students may begin to “expect” models before every assignment. As much as they seem to struggle against it, students like structure. It focuses them on their work and helps to keep them on-task. However, it is important that students also learn the values of flexibility and freedom. When we model an example of a completed assignment or project before it is assigned, students will begin to expect this pattern—even potentially in other classes. Producing a teacher model every time also says to our students, “This is what I think your project should look like, so try to make it look as close as possible to this one.” Trying to model every activity or assignment sets unrealistic expectations for both sides: students expect us to create and show a model constantly and we expect students to come up with something unique and interesting despite the fact that we’ve limited their ideas by showing a teacher-model. Like a dieter, remember: everything in moderation. It is most definitely true that you can have too much of a good thing, and modeling is just one instance of that in the classroom.
An interesting drawback that sometimes occurs is that if students see teacher-
models after they complete their assignment, they interpret what they did as being incorrect. One intern shared an incident from her classroom:
“I designed a project where the students had a lot of room for creativity. The project could take any form they chose: poetry, music, art, a collage. The day after I assigned the project, I showed an example. At the end of this unit, I asked for feedback. One student said that I should have showed my example the same day I assigned the project because ‘maybe if [they] started it the same day you assigned it, it wouldn’t have been to late for [them] to realize that what [they] did was wrong.’”
Another key issue to consider here is that modeling may lead students to engage in “teacher-pleasing” behaviors. If we always model an activity that we as teachers produce, students will compare and try to match what we make to create what they believe will please us, rather than engage in a learning activity which will please them (isn’t that one of our ultimate goals of education? Is it perhaps too idealistic?). We don’t want to get to the point where what they do is artificial and everything they do is “for the teacher”—they need to seek out real projects and real audiences.
My greatest problem with modeling, which prompted this inquiry, is that student work can become “mass produced” ideas—i.e. loss of creativity, as piece after piece echoes the same structure, and often, the same ideas. As an English teacher, we will often have 75-100 pieces of work to look at for every large assignment! I, for one, enjoy the grading process much more when I am seeing different presentations of information and perspectives and ideas. It’s easier for me to stay awake! While assessment can take a longer amount of time in this case, it feels less tedious—almost fun.
Modeling and Creativity: More Questions
As I sent out my survey and began looking for research and ideas, Professor Jamie Myers reminded me of this: “What we have to remember here is that forms and modeling are not something there is any shortage of in our lives. Students already have some pretty fixed ideas about what counts as learning and work in school, and if we don’t do some very specific things to break up those forms, they will conform their work to them without even thinking about alternative possibilities.” I began to ask more questions: what is creativity? Why do we value it? Webster’s defines being creative in two ways:
1. characterized by originality and expressiveness; imaginative: creative writing.
2. having the quality of something created rather than imitated or assembled: expressive of maker
Creativity is defined as “the ability to create; the quality of being creative; to satisfy the need for self-expression.” From these definitions, and my own experience in the classroom and as a student myself, I have come to believe that creativity is not static—a creative person. We need to help students, even teach students, to be creative. Creativity is interesting, creativity brings pieces of each student into the work they produce—this is why we as teachers, especially English teachers, value creativity and alternative perspectives.
Does modeling have a stifling effect on the creativity of our students? If I made a specific model of an assignment because I was worried about students struggling too much, I may have stifled the creativity that can come out of struggle, and instead received assignments almost identical to the sample, void of new ideas, and rather, full of mass-produced ideas. Sometimes struggle can produce creativity. If students grapple with an assignment, and can get past the ambiguity, often they will produce impressive work. A week into working with ninth graders, I discovered (with help of my wise mentor) that our students needed more structure—in fact, some of them craved it. After a class in the computer lab developing web pages during which I was feeling quite unsuccessful, I later reflected:
One of my main problems/uncertainties in the classroom that is extremely prevalent right now, is: when our students struggle, how much of it is a necessary struggle/challenge and how much of it comes from me—poor directions, an assignment given too soon, moving at too fast a pace, misjudging students’ prior knowledge or abilities, etc. Lacking much experience in the classroom, I constantly tend to bring struggles and confusions back to me, instead of asking, “what are the students learning from the struggle?” or realizing that sometimes they need to struggle to stretch themselves and stop being lazy. Is this a knowledge that comes with years of experience?
The answer to my ending question is by no means rhetorical. The more I got to know my students and became more confident as a teacher, the easier it was to see where struggle was making students stronger and where I was the cause of unnecessary struggle for the students. I also embraced struggle as part of my daily classroom being, once I figured out how to harness (or de-throne) its power.
Suggestions for Using Modeling in the English Classroom: Practical Uses
My exploration into modeling is an inquiry. It is just a brief look at the ways this technique can be used or has been used, and its effects on our classrooms, students, and their assignments. I don’t have all the answers, but I have found some success with using modeling in the following contexts, and will relate them here in order to enlighten future educators who may (or may not) read this paper. Sometimes, especially as beginning teachers, we need to find some practical ways to incorporate theories of teaching and learning in our classrooms.
Writing is one area where modeling can work wonders to help students improve—because writing is often abstract, using overheads to go through revisions or writing a paper in “real time” makes the process much more concrete.
One of the best ways I’ve experienced modeling is through the use of reading strategies with my students. Using post-it notes to comment as I read has become just as much a part of my practice as it has theirs. Also, showing students that even we, as teachers, struggle is one of the best ways to build trust because we model honesty and openness.
Modeling projects is a great way to show samples of student work from previous years so your class can see a variety of examples. Didn’t have a class last year because you’re a new teacher? Ask your more seasoned colleagues for some examples to share.
Using a fishbowl discussion (having the rest of the class observe a small group participate in a discussion with the help of the teacher) is an excellent way to teach students effective methods of discussion.
The same basic principle applies here: do what the students are doing. Are they writing in journals? Put your pen to the paper. Cutting and pasting for a collage? Make your own! When we show that we value an activity, students are quick to catch our enthusiasm.
The most practical thing we can do here comes as a cliché: treat others as we want to be treated. Modeling enthusiasm, kindness, honesty, and optimistic attitudes in our classrooms will have a positive impact on our students at school and outside of our classroom walls.
Through some pleasure reading, I discovered a portrayal of an alchemist and considered this term as an interesting metaphor for a teacher. The dictionary defines alchemy as any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value. An alchemist is, therefore, a person who is versed in or practices alchemy. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark claims, “There’s a method to my madness…” Like an alchemist, a teacher goes through an almost magical process to turn an assignment or an experience into something valuable for our students. We must find the best way possible—often we discover our own “magic” through trial and error, until, like Hamlet, we figure out what our method is and apply it (although at the time, it may appear to be madness). The way we choose to use modeling as a learning tool is just one technique we hold up our sleeves. Like any magic, we need to keep practicing and perfecting these methods, until they astonish and amaze and cause our students’ in-school work and out-of-school lives to become worthy of applause.
A. Educator Modeling Survey
B. Writing in Real Time—copied transparency
Agnes, Michael. (Ed.) Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Foster City, CA: IDG
Book Worldwide, Inc., 2000.
Eggen, Paul and Don Kauchak. Educational Psychology: Classroom
Connections. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 2001.
Qurich, Geralynn. Theory into practice: Modeling respect in the classroom.
Intervention in School & Clinic, Nov 95, 31(2), p. 119-21.