Learning through modelling

Have a think about the last time you deliberately had to learn something. What did you do to help you learn? What helped? What was most useful?

The COVID-19 lockdown period in March and April 2020 was a time when people looked for home-based activities to keep themselves busy. Being a fishing enthusiast, I turned to my fly tying box. I couldn’t go fishing due to the lock down regulations so I thought I would tie some flies to get myself well stocked up and ready for next season. Tying fishing flies is an intricate skill that requires knowledge of the various tying techniques and processes. It can become an art form. I had dabbled with fly tying for several years but had never really spent concerted time honing my skills. My previous efforts resulted in ugly flies that fell to bits quite quickly. I decided during ‘lockdown’ to learn to tie flies properly.

I took some time to think about the best way to do this. I had tried instructional books but did not understand the terminology well enough and the images were few and far between. I thought about experimenting and using the trial and error method, but I had done that previously with limited success. Turning to technology, I searched YouTube. From the many fly-tying videos available, I found one channel that was particularly good. The quality of the close up video shots was excellent, the videos were not too long (5-6 minutes), and the presenter explained and demonstrated how to tie flies clearly and concisely. He not only gave instructions but also a clear rationale for the methods he chose. I found these videos ideal for my learning and, if necessary, I could watch them again and again to ensure I was doing it right. I could see my technique improve and by following the process I could tie the fly myself. I often stopped half way through tying a fly to remind myself how to do the next step by re-watching a certain part of the video. After a while I became quite good at the fly I had learnt, so moved to other flies and techniques. I even started tying small flies, which had previously been too difficult for me.

What struck me was how powerful the videos had been throughout my learning. On reflection I felt they were effective because:

  • the instructions were clear
  • it was visual
  • I could follow it step by step
  • I could refer to it and revisit it to help remind myself of steps or specific techniques
  • a clear rationale had been given for the choice of method and process.

This learning reminded me of the work we did on modelling many years ago during my time in the Assess to Learn professional learning project.

We were tasked to do some research on assessment for learning practices as part of the project. We interviewed students who had made significant learning gains during the year and their respective teachers. With these gains in mind, our question for these students was - what had helped them most in their learning? We also gathered the teacher’s perspective about what assisted the progress of their learners the most. While analysing this Year 1 to Year 10 data we uncovered something we did not expect. Students had placed the importance of modelling far higher than their teachers. The students felt that seeing how to do something new, having some examples to help or guide their thinking, and having high quality exemplars to compare their work against had significantly influenced their ability to manage their own learning, improve and succeed.

This finding made us think about the different forms of modelling that we had observed in classrooms across the country. Through an analysis we identified five generic forms of modelling. They were:

Examples: selected visual, oral, or physical samples of a process or product.

Exemplars: authentic examples of student work that demonstrate a shared understanding of criteria. Typically, exemplars are either national or school-based documents.

Learning charts: visual displays that provide specific information that explains, reminds, informs, prompts, scaffolds and assists students in their learning. As opposed to showing an example, learning charts show the process. For example:

  • labelled diagrams
  • flow diagrams
  • progression charts
  • individual group and class goals
  • next step sequences and
  • content information charts.

Demonstrations: A combination of showing and telling how to master a skill or idea. Demonstrations are:

  • practical
  • engaging
  • sensory
  • replicable
  • at times, essential (health and safety).

Developing models together: The collaborative development of a model. This form of modelling uses the abilities (knowledge, skills, understandings, and key competencies) of the participants in order to clarify learning outcomes. The completed product enjoys shared ownership and can be used as a reference for ongoing teaching and learning purposes.

We found all five were more suited to particular types of activities and learning. For example, we noticed that demonstrations were often used for instruction of physical activities, while writing was more suited to examples, exemplars and developing a model together.

Most importantly all five were found to be effective and useful for students. They were deliberate and explicit ways teachers could help students understand the learning and the task and assist them in pushing through the hard or new bits of learning. It also moved the students away from teacher reliance by allowing them to work through an issue or problem by using the modelling as a resource for learning.

As educators, you can set learners up for success by providing modelling that helps them understand the process and what needs to be achieved. It is something teachers can plan for and be deliberate about because examples, exemplars, or demonstrations are often readily available. Without the use of models and modelling students can find learning frustrating, difficult, and unclear.

My fly tying experience certainly reminded me of the importance of modelling to support learning. In my experience it is something that has helped me in sporting and recreation activities, education, hobbies, my job, cooking, and home DIY just to mention a few. Our research also found that young learners valued the use of modelling as part of the learning process. As educators we must not forget that.

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Tags: assessment for learning modelling


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