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Modeling: Essential for Learning

Karen Lea

5 - 12 mathematics teacher and currently teacher of teachers
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Do you remember learning to tie your shoes? Or learning to bake a cake? Or learning to read? I'm guessing you did not learn by watching a video or listening to a lecture. You learned by being shown, and by practice. The same principle applies to our teaching! We must model for our students.

Okay, so that is easy in mathematics, science and some other hands-on subjects. Yes, but do we really model? Do we:

  1. Use visuals or examples that are relevant?
  2. Model while thinking out loud so that students hear the process?
  3. Concisely communicate what we are doing and what is needed?
  4. Present or model logically?
  5. Present or model only what is needed and leave the extra "stuff" out?

We must become deliberate in our modeling so that students learn. Math VIDS has some great information on modeling in the classroom. How do we do that? Let's look at the Common Core Standards and focus on Reading Informational Text.

Grade 4

Standard: Describe the overall structure (chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts or information in a text or part of a text.

Lesson: The standard says "describe," but that does not mean "tell." If we just say the words, very few students will understand. Telling isn't modeling. So how do we model this? Think about how we can "show" students the text. You can use timelines to show chronology. Do we do this on paper? We can, but why not use technology? There are several sites that allow you to use technology to create timelines. Check out SoftSchools' Timeline Maker or ReadWriteThink's Interactive Timeline. Model for your students how to use these apps or other software, and model how to decide what goes first on the timeline. Let the students hear you think about your decisions of what to put in the timeline. Then have them create their own timelines.

What about comparisons and cause/effect? Again, use technology and let the students hear your thinking. Start with some examples where students compare objects in the classroom. You can also start with life examples where you talk about cause and effect, such as how not setting an alarm clock might mean being late for school.

So, modeling is not all about the teacher doing and the students watching. It is the teacher doing while involving the students in the thinking, the doing and all aspects of the process. Modeling also means a progression of teacher doing less and students doing more. This starts with the teacher doing most of the work for one example, then less of the work for a second example, until the fourth or fifth example when the students are doing most of the work. Don't have time to do five examples? If you do not take the time to ensure that all students understand, then you will spend the time you saved by reteaching. Why not take that time in the beginning instead of later?

Grade 6 and 9-10

Standard: Determine the meanings of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative and technical meanings.

Lesson: This can be a fun lesson or a very boring lesson. The boring lesson? Look up the words in a dictionary. Not fun for a sixth grade student. So how can we make this lesson motivating? We can model finding the meanings of words and phrases within a text. Try this: take a list of prefixes, suffixes and root words, and have students make up new words. They must define and use them in a sentence. This is a fun way to introduce parts of words. Have students present their words, definitions and sentences. Then have them write a story with their new words. Whenever I use this lesson, we all have a great time laughing, and it challenges me. Students get to see me stop them in a story and say, "Wait, I need to figure out that word." Then I get the parts of words and model how I am figuring out what the word means. They love stumping me! After this, move into a piece of text, and again stop and say, "Wait, let's figure out what that word means." Have the students help you discover word meanings using parts of words. The next day, start saying, "Wait; in context, I think the word means this," and show the students how you use clues in the writing to discover word meanings. Model the thinking. Give your students the gift of learning how to discover word meanings.

Again, modeling means that the teacher does most of the work the first time, and then gradually the students do most of the work.

Does this take time? Yes! However, you are giving students a valuable gift of learning to learn instead of relying on the teacher for learning. So give it a try. Take a lesson where you would "tell" the students and recreate it as a modeling lesson. Then tell us about it!

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sakesa's picture

I particularly agree with the definition of describe where it is not limited to speaking. Verbal connotation, especially in descriptors, can loose students as they try to visually arrange information based upon their individual perspective, which is derived from their personal beliefs and experiences. The importance of modeling behavior and requiring students to emulate desired learning outcomes is that it allows the student to personally connect with the information and finding its applicable use.

Andrea's picture

Thank you for this informative article. It is a great reminder to gradually fade out the teacher's role in modeling in order to make sure students are ready to work independently on the practice activity. The time spent modeling is time saved from re-teaching - so important to remember when you feel like you just need to hurry along to fit it all in the class period.

Wowzers's picture
Wowzers offers online Game-based Math curriculum for Grades 3-8

Karen makes some great points. Modeling is huge for students. Think about putting IKEA furniture together from the directions, its tough! But when you can watch someone do it the right way, it makes a world of difference.

The same goes for students. When they can see the teacher calmly and correctly complete a task or activity, chances are they have a better chance of doing so themselves.

To learn more about the needs for modeling and preparation on the new computer-based Common Core assessments, check out this blog post -

Elizabeth Bettencourt's picture
Elizabeth Bettencourt
Instructional Coach

Great post. I coach teachers K-12, and I find myself talking about the importance of modeling over and over (and over!) again. It is so important.

Jihada Ford-Williams's picture
Jihada Ford-Williams
1st grade teacher from Tupelo, MS

Thank you for the refresher! Transitioning from kindergarten, where we modeled everything (like taking your tray to the cafeteria window), to students who are a bit more independent it is easy to assume students' prior knowledge. Modeling is essential and beneficial for students and teachers.

jonathan ewell's picture

Lea, I echo others' posts regarding the helpfulness of your reminder of not only the importance of modeling to students' comprehension, but also of the process goal of modeling; the front-loaded instruction having as its purpose a higher degree of subsequent student understanding and competency to the point that the modeling becomes (quickly!) obsolete.
The word-creation game that you mention seems particularly interesting, as it involves a great degree of creativity and engagement, on both your and the students' parts, and I think that this is at (or near!) the heart of good teacher modeling; the ability and willingness to immerse oneself in the learner's world to truly show what "good" learning looks like. There is a degree of empathy involved in this pursuit if done well, I believe, in addition to the attributes of effective modeling that you include as a list in your post. As clear and precise as the modeling might be, I believe that including that empathy piece, that direct involvement of oneself as a teacher who "does", adds so much to the overall effect and integration of the lesson into the students' experiences.
Thanks for the boost of awareness regarding all of this!

Sonja Sutton Gayer's picture

Great thoughts throughout this article! I especially appreciate the statement that modeling isn't about the teacher showing and the students watching. I can see high school teachers who tend to lecture too often using your example of modeling a portion of the lesson then having the student practice the step that was modeled. We have to change our content delivery to match their needs with 21st Century opportunities. Modeling and scaffolding the amount of modeling is the perfect way to get all teachers preK-12th grades started.

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