By Aidan Severs
If there’s one thing that goes out the window faster than anything else in a primary school lesson it’s the modelling. In this piece, Aidan Severs explains why modelling is essential and how we should approach it.
When time is of the essence, there are certainly some things which can be left by the wayside, such as extra practice time for primary children. However, in my experience as a primary teacher, it’s the modelling which is either first to go or which is reduced to a tokenistic gesture. But really, there is no teaching without modelling. Certainly, explanations are important, but in the majority of cases an explanation without modelling is often just confusing.
What do we mean by modelling?
By modelling we mean showing the children how to do what it is you want them to do. And it really is that simple.
However, modelling does need to be seen as, at its simplest, a 2-dimensional process. For example, we must model not only the subject-based content of a task, but also the how of the task. More often than not, when modelling is done in the primary classroom, it will focus more on the content than the procedure. And, even where, when modelling the content, a teacher also models the process implicitly, primary children often don’t take note of the procedural modelling, only the modelling of the content.
Let’s take the teaching of the column method for addition as an illustration. A teacher will always be modelling both the content and the procedure, but children will most likely to be focusing on the content. So, in this example, the children will be using their brain power to ensure that they understand how to add two numbers using this written method: they will be focusing on things like adding the digits and how to regroup.
What they won’t focus so much on, unless it is explicitly pointed out, is the layout of the written method. Most primary teachers recognise this to be true, remembering all the times when children have made mistakes, or even demonstrated misconceptions, in the way that they set out their calculations on the page, often not aligning the digits in the ones column, the digits in the tens column, and so on.
However, when a teacher models with both the content and the procedure in mind, children make far fewer of these kinds of mistakes. When a teacher explicitly weaves the mathematical content relating to the addition in with the procedural knowledge, stopping to point out that the digits in the ones column must be aligned, children are much more likely to get this right in their own work.
This kind of 2-dimensional modelling can be used to model the smallest details, such as how to set out an equation, right the way up to the greatest of expectations, for example, when children are producing a final draught of a non-chronological report, and need to be shown exactly what the page’s layout could look like.
In English, a teacher might successfully model how to write within a particular genre, but this modelling is done in large writing on a whiteboard, and does not reflect the actual layout of the page in the child’s English book. A more successful model – an example of 2-dimensional modelling – would be created live during the lesson in a book exactly the same as the children’s own books and would be projected, via a visualiser or camera, on to the board so that all children could see the model well.
Matching the modelling to the task
Another modelling pitfall is less to do with the modelling and more to do with the matching of the task that has been planned to the modelling that has been provided.
During the new learning phase of a teaching sequence, if a teacher has not broken down the content into small enough steps, it can be very easy to make this mistake. For example, when teaching short division, it is wise to breakdown the kinds of questions that you are both modelling and asking children to practise.
In this learning-sequence you would want to start with a two-digit number divided by a one-digit number. You might also want to begin with a problem that requires no regrouping and which leaves no remainder, i.e. a problem where the double-digit number can be divided by the single-digit number exactly. Once you have modelled this you would not then expect children to complete problems that include regrouping and remainders, or even problems which involve a dividend of more than two digits.
Teachers as experts
Outlining the above may sound patronising, however it does happen. And this is why I think it happens: teachers, who we can think of as experts, particularly in things such as adding and dividing numbers in fairly simple equations, often find it difficult to recognise how much new learning needs to be broken down for the learner. This is not because they are bad teachers rather that they are experts and know how to do something without even really having to put much thought into it.
As teachers, when planning and preparing our teaching, we must remember that there is a lot that children don’t know, that they are novices, and that if we want them to learn new things, we need to model those new things carefully and thoroughly in order to give them the best chance of being successful.
So what might we need to change?
Planning for modelling
As already mentioned, this starts at the planning stage. At this point, when sitting in your PPA session, you must be thoughtful about what the children know already, what they don’t know yet and how you are going to break down what they don’t yet know into bite-sized chunks.
The next step then is to use some of your precious planning time to work out what you are going to say and what you are going to do to show children how to be successful in this new learning, taking into consideration the concept of 2-dimensional modelling (content and procedure). Although it takes quite a lot of time, it really is worth doing. You will reap the benefits when, in the classroom, you don’t have to repeat your explanations time and time again to children who have not understood the content or the procedure.
Making teaching decisions
Once your explanations and models are planned it remains for you to use them in the classroom. And this is where even the best intentions can fall flat. Everybody knows that the school day is busy and changeable and often things happen outside of a teacher’s control, meaning there is not enough time to get through everything that has been planned. It is at this point that we must respond by thinking about which of the lesson’s components must remain and what can be left out. Explanations and modelling must not be cut; teachers should persevere with doing a good job of these two aspects as without these, moving to practice time for children will result in them being unable to complete the work.
Actually, it’s the practice time that will have to go. If this is the case, then you will need to make sure that the next lesson begins with a recap and perhaps further modelling, but that it is then given over to the practice time that children missed in the previous lesson.
This can be anathema to the teacher who still feels that a lesson should contain three parts and should all fit neatly into the timetabled slot for that subject. For teachers who do not see learning as a sequence but only see a succession of self-contained lessons, this will require a greater change of mindset. Also for those who are held to account for the amount of written work, or recorded work, in each lesson, this will present difficulties.
Modelling in all subjects of the primary curriculum
Another issue that presents in primary schools is that in certain subjects modelling is not given the same precedence as it is in say, maths and English. There are several reasons for this, such as:
- the aforementioned lack of time in a squeezed timetable where many different curriculum subjects are vying for attention;
- teachers’ own levels of expertise in subjects that they are not specialists in mean that they are less confident to model for example, the necessary brush stroke techniques that impressionist artists used;
- logistical problems such as modelling the procedures involved in sawing a piece of wood at an angle to a class of 30 children at once.
It goes without saying that modelling needs to be an important part of all teaching across the curriculum. In these wider curriculum subjects, it is probably even more important to model the processes, as they are typically practised less often. For example, a child will spend more time practising punctuating their sentences properly than they will using a compass or a map in geography.
Modelling at the centre of teaching and learning
Whatever your pedagogical views are, it’s hard to deny the importance of modelling. From the most hardcore of direct instruction proponents, to the staunch devotee of discovery learning, modelling the what and how will always be essential to a teacher’s role. We therefore need to ensure that it is given the time that it deserves.