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Strategic Modeling: Balancing Structure with Choice

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Early in my teaching career, I viewed students' struggles as a temporary phase that would end once they started working harder and "figured it out." Students would come to me with questions, or I would notice their confusion and talk with them, but I was very careful not to give them too much information. I was a progressive educator, and if I shared too many ideas, the work would be mine, and not theirs (or so I told myself).

For my classroom, I still strongly believe in the concept of student as worker, teacher as coach (thank you CES), and I continue to structure learning so that students -- and not the teacher -- are the focus. And yet, the more I've become aware of my own learning process, the more I've come to value the importance of strategic modeling for students.

When I feel stuck in the midst of a project of my own, or when I am attempting something that is beyond my knowledge base, I turn to others as I slowly figure out my own path. There is no way that my writing, my teaching, my parenting or even my plumbing could have improved were it not for conversations I had with others, and for outside examples that moved my thinking forward.

Figuring Out the Balance

While modeling is very important for student success, we can easily forget that it needs to be done with tact and strategy. It's tempting to make content clear enough so that students can immediately "get it." The problem is that this practice removes certain meaningful and engaging experiences of discovery and creativity.

My goals are to create situations where all students feel that they have a clear understanding of a framework that can guide them in their work. This means there is some modeling that I will do for a whole class and some modeling that I will share only with students who are struggling. The continual dance is to find examples to share that provide enough information for students to move forward while maintaining their own, individualized processes of creation.

Examples of Modeling

Sharing a Sample Project

In my English classes, I have assigned a project in which students have to interview someone from their community and create an audio podcast related to the theme of "crossing boundaries." Because the project involves skills that are new to many students and a product that is not necessarily familiar, I use excerpts from the radio show This American Life as a model. As a class, we analyze the form, discover different ways that storytellers allow stories to unfold, and speak in depth about editing. These models offer students a vision of how their own work can proceed. Here is an example of a powerful podcast made by Briana (interview content starts at 00:35).

Modeling Thinking

I work with my students to create complex thesis statements that are controversial, specific and debatable. Because this is new to many of them, we first go over the criteria together, and then I have groups create both good and bad thesis statements about their favorite TV shows. As groups share their examples aloud, I will model the thinking for them by sharing ideas to help them revise on the spot and make their thesis statements stronger.

Having Peers Share Their Work

I try to seize every opportunity to highlight quality student work as a model for others. In a unit on poetry, we all worked together on a wiki where each student had his or her own page. As students were creating their poetry portfolios, I would begin classes by projecting different students' pages and pointing out interesting techniques and exceptional work as models for others to emulate.

Helping a Struggling Student

Last year, one of my students hit a wall every time he began a writing assignment. He would sit, staring at his blank computer screen, getting more and more disconsolate as the people around him progressed with their work. The more I worked with this student, the more it became apparent that once he had a beginning, he could proceed with the rest of the work on his own. I began to check in with him in the early stages of projects and ask him his ideas. Once I had heard some of his early thoughts, I would offer him some sample opening sentences that I created on the spot. This small amount of modeling often made it possible for him to find a way to proceed with his work.

The Attentive Educator

Learning is a messy, communal, back-and-forth process. Just as we look to peers and outside inspiration to enrich our own teaching and learning, we should remember that students need a balance between structure and choice. Too much structure can remove individual investment and creativity. When choice is not backed up with clear modeling of expectations and guidelines, many are left unsure of how to proceed. As educators, if we are more attentive to the dance of structure and choice, we enable more students to produce work that is both powerful and profound.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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

julie williams's picture
julie williams
7th grade LA teacher from Colorado Springs, Colorado

I really like this article. I'm always struggling with the balance between giving the students too much freedom and too little. Oftentimes, I don't want to give freedom because of my own control issues of how things will turn out without my direct leading. However, times when I have given much freedom usually resulted in great work.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

Thanks for the great post. I know many educators struggle with this and it's mostly something you have to feel out with practice and with time, you'll know the balance that works best for students.

I think this was a key point from your blog that's worth repeating:

"The continual dance is to find examples to share that provide enough information for students to move forward while maintaining their own, individualized processes of creation."

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

In Critical Skills, we talk about an "over time and with experience" framework for deciding how messy or ill-defined a problem or task should be, how resources should be obtained, and how much support the teacher should provide. For example, in the earliest days, students can expect to take on challenges that focus on getting to know one another- building community- with little to know academic consequence. As the team becomes more solid, challenges will add academic content, but in a fairly simple way ("You and your partner need to come up with a mnemonic device to help the class remember the definitions of these 5 words") with resources provided ("Here are the words I want you to define. You can find the definitions in your textbook. Use chart pack and markers to document your mnemonic devices.'). Over time, the problems grow increasingly messy, combining more elements of the academic content, and resources evolve from "everything you need to solve this problem is in this packet," to "everything you need to solve this problem is on this table," to "everything you need to solve this problem is in this room," to "Here's the problem. You can use any resources you'd like to come up with a solution."

I find that going too far, too fast is the most common mistake teachers make when trying to move towards progressive methodologies. This is a great discussion of the challenges of striking that balance.

The teaching channel has an interesting video on Gradual Release of Responsibility, a similar concept. It's worth a look.

Becky's picture

Giving students choice is definitely beneficial. It gives students the opportunity to be creative. It also gives students more motivation because they are either reading or writing something they are interested in. Giving choices in reward systems also are beneficial. If students with autism have a list of options they can choose for, they will be motivated to get their work done. They are working for a purpose-they have something to work for.

Ms. Hargrave's picture

I teach a literacy class for long-term English Language Learners focused on building academic language. I went to a presentation several years ago that dramatically influenced my teaching and promoted more modeling in my classroom. The presenter focused on research which suggests that because academic language and organization is such a fixed concept (readers in academic contexts anticipate a very specific structure and even specific phrases), proficient language users actually compose academic text using phrases they have learned rather than individual words. If we take out some of the modeling and direct instruction in the language classroom, it is not likely our students will arrive at these specific structures, and we are therefore requiring an increased language load from students who are the most behind. I have seen much growth in my students as I model academic phrases and structures; we typically arrive at a point quite early where I can use student examples to help the others build their own skills.

Phil Linder's picture

It has taken me a very long time to feel as though I could truly capture a class and have my students grasp the content in turn. I created a project requiring the students to ask an adult of their choice about the individual's experiences on September 11, 2001. They were to create a presentation displaying their findings. Before doing this, I filmed myself being interviewed by a fictitious student and shared the material with my class so that they would have a proper model to follow for an otherwise outside-the-box project. It was quite effective.

Thanks for the post!

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for the comments. I love hearing all of these different examples of modeling and providing choice!

This past week I found myself using selective modeling where, while individuals were brainstorming design ideas for a project, I made the rounds and selectively shared different project models with different students based on the initial thoughts they shared with me. My goal was to encourage a range of different projects while providing students with inspiration that would help them further develop their own ideas.

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