To Model or Not To Model: That Is the Question

Art Emulation

In addition to the numerous treats I shared from this year’s NCTE convention, I also had the privilege of hearing Ellin Keene talk about talk—specifically about what kind of teacher talk enhances or impedes student understanding. Drawing on some of the work from her most recent book Talk About Understanding, she shared some trends and patterns she’d noticed during a year she spent viewing and analyzing teachers’ talk in classrooms. Among the things she noticed and named that all too often we do were the following:

    • Cut students off before they have a chance to fully develop their thinking
    • Accept students’ first thoughts without probing for deeper thinking
    • Move on before we label students’ descriptions of thinking (i.e., naming for them what they’re doing) so that the thinking can be transferred
    • Segue from modeling to student responsibility too quickly

The first three points I see all the time—and have been guilty of doing myself. And seeing them named so clearly reminds me of both the power of naming and the importance of giving students enough time to develop and test out their thinking. But the last point made me pause, because increasingly in my own practice, I’ve found myself moving away from explicit modeling in reading.

Mini LessonAs Dorothy Barnhouse and I both noticed and discussed in What Readers Really Do, when we model how readers use strategies through a think aloud, what students too often take away is what we thought, not how. And they can be left (as I sometimes am in the wake of a great think aloud) feeling dazzled but daunted. Additionally, a mini-lesson based on a “Today I’m going to teach you” teaching point, followed by a “Now watch me do it” demonstration and a “Now you do what I do” link puts students in a passive role and re-enforces a vision of student as empty vessels in need of teacher filling.

In his great book on teacher talk Choice Words, Peter Johnston shows how this positioning can have even more consequences, which he describes as the “hidden costs in telling people things”:

“If a student can figure something out for him- or herself, explicitly providing the information preempts the student’s opportunity to build a sense of agency and independence . . . When you figure something out for yourself, there is a certain thrill in the figuring. After a few successful experiences, you might start to think that figuring things out is something that you can actually do. Maybe you are even a figuring out kind of person . . . When you are told what to do, particularly without asking, it feels different. Being told explicitly what to do and how to do it—over and over again—provides the foundation for a different set of feelings and a different story about what you can and can’t do, and who you are.”

Peter Johnston2For Johnston, the key to learning isn’t explicit teacher modeling but student engagement. And from 2008 to 2010 he was involved in a research study that yielded compelling proof of that. As he shared in a recent blog post titled “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement,” he and his colleague Gay Ivey looked at four 8th grade classrooms where the teachers decided to put engagement front and center by cutting back on explicit instruction and modeling and offering instead edgy young adult fiction with adolescent-relevant themes that the students could read without strings attached—i.e., no book reports or quizzes. The results? In addition to reading an average of 42 books a year and becoming more open, responsible and empathic, the students increased their standardized test scores, in some cases by more than 10%. (A paper on the study can be found here.)

In our current age of anxiety, however, where accountability and data collection rule, it’s hard to image this study being replicated in any systemic way. But what if instead of modeling, we moved students more quickly into problem-solving mode by orchestrating experiences for them that positioned them to feel the thrill of figuring things out?

This was what I did the other day in a fourth grade bilingual room that was embarking on a thematic unit of study about overcoming adversity. These were students who could easily be seen as deficient—who ‘couldn’t’ infer, ‘couldn’t’ summarize, ‘couldn’t’ find the main idea. But as we began to read Yangsook Choi‘s The Name Jarwithout a shred of modeling and no more support than a chance to turn and talk and a T-chart to record what they were learning and what they wondered about, their thinking was amazing.

The Name JarFrom the cover, they wondered what a name jar was, why the book was called that, who put the names in the jar and why, and was the girl putting something in or taking something out? With these questions in mind and their curiosity sparked, I started reading, pausing periodically to let them turn and talk and share out what they were thinking out.

What they noticed was that on almost every page, something about names came up: the girl’s grandmother gives her a wooden name stamp when she leaves Korea; children on the bus make fun of her name; she lies about her name to her classmates; the Korean grocer says her name is beautiful; and she tries out various American names as she brushes her teeth. They also had two more burning questions: Will she decide to change her name? and Will she manage to make friends?

As they wrestled with these questions half-way through the book, they demonstrated a deep understanding of the girl’s predicament in a way that also showed their ability to refer to details when explaining what the text said explicitly and when drawing inferences from it (Reading Literature Standard 4.1) and to draw on specific details from a text to describe in depth a character or event (RL. 4.3). They were also well on their way to determine a theme of a story from details in the text (RL.4.2)—and none of that had been explicitly taught or modeled (though I did ask them to share what made them think what they did and ended by naming the work they’d done).

It’s possible, of course, that what allowed them to do this was the explicit modeling their teacher had done. But what if, as Johnston and Ivey conclude of the students in their study, “Being fully engaged and facing problems, they became strategic”? What if they automatically generated strategies because they were invested in what they were reading, not because someone told them that’s what good readers do? And what if in delaying the release of responsibility, we risk becoming helicopter teachers, hovering over our students heads to make sure they get it right in a way that deprives them of the opportunity to learn by their mistakes?

For the record, I do keep explicit teaching and modeling in my toolkit of teaching moves. But it’s not automatically the tool I first pull out, because sometimes less is more.


20 thoughts on “To Model or Not To Model: That Is the Question

  1. Vicki, lots to think about here! First, I’m guilty of ALL of those teacher talk patterns! Ouch. But, luckily, today is a new day and I can learn from my mistakes!

    Interesting, too, about the role of student engagement. What follows is anecdotal evidence in support of student engagement rather than teacher brilliance as the key factor. 🙂

    I find myself more and more interested in noticing how students approach their own interests, their own learning, and less and less interested in specific “skill teaching” lessons. Sure, I’ll do ’em, but I don’t believe they are the key to growth. I’ve noticed that the students who can wear their passion for learning “on their sleeve” seem to do just fine, no matter where they started. (For example, yesterday I tested one boy who made two years of growth — based on an IRI — in four months of school so far. Luckily, I can’t take credit for that growth. He can, though, mostly because he’s found a passion for reading. And he’ll be able to carry that self-knowledge for the rest of his life!) Conversely, I’ve noticed that those who can’t see their own passion for learning often struggle. Yet I believe that everyone can experience the “thrill of figuring things out.” What to do? I’m seeing my role increasingly as building student self-knowledge and confidence, to notice where the layers of passion are in each student, and to help that student recognize that passion, too…WITHOUT talking over them and accepting less than their (or my) best.

    • I think what you’re talking about when you say self-knowledge and confidence is exactly what Peter Johntson means when he talks of identity and agency, which he believes are the key ingredients to flexibility and transfer—i.e., real learning. I’m not sure we can teach that, per se, but we can encourage and create situations that foster it, as I imagine you must have done with this student (and as I’m sure you’ve done for the class reading Bruce Coville). For my own part, I find myself getting increasingly irritable about the need to teach students skills and impatient with a system that measures what is quantifiably measurable, which isn’t always the same as what counts. That’s why anecdotal evidence is so important. And for the record, Ellin Keene admitted to making all those teacher talk moves, too.

      • I share that irritation. Our district is seriously considering buying an expensive basal program that would lay out “skills lessons” for as long as the sea is deep and the sky is wide. (And a bit beyond.) However, your blog (and some others) and those thoughts of your readers around the country are a source of hope and inspiration that balance out the other stuff. And THAT, as my grandfather used to say, is no small potatoes.

      • I’m sure it’s clear to everyone by now that I don’t always agree with David Coleman, but here’s something that might be interesting to pass on to whoever are your powers that be. He’s come down hard on what he calls teaching the skill or strategy of the week, which at some point he calls “the apparatus we have build up around reading.” Instead, he suggests we let the text set the agenda, not the teaching of strategies and skills. Seems that there’s a case against basal readers in those comments—though many, many districts are making the move back to basals because, I think, they claim to meet the Standards, which of course I’m dubious about.

      • Oh reading basals :/. I am going to represent my school on a district level committee to select the “new reading series”. I just want to say let’s not get one but spend money on good books. People look at me like I am nuts. I agree with the not making the center of instruction the “focus skill” of the week yet this is exactly what we are to do. Even our standards are organized around specific focus skills. How can a student determine main idea etc if he/she cannot even form their own thinking? I have felt this way for a very long time.

      • All this basal talk is so dispiriting. I worked with a 4th grade teacher last year who’s school had jumped onto the basal bandwagon after several years of flat test score. The year before the basals came, she’d read Because of Winn-Dixie to her students, which was an incredibly moving experience for both her and her students. Last year, she was only able to read one isolated chapter that appeared in the basal in a chapter on cause and effect—and she was literally in tears about it. To reduce a wonderfully rich book like Winn-Dixie to a lesson on cause and effect seems almost criminal. And you’re so right about the main idea, which on top of everything else encourages reductive, not expansive, thinking. So please speak up, even if only one person listens.

      • I teach 4rth grade and I bet I have that same basal because there is an excerpt from “Because of Winn Dixie”. You know what other teachers say to me when I say I wish we didnt have to have a basal series? People won’t know what to teach. How sad is that. The basal and the weekly tests for “data” ans “grades” just gets in my way.

  2. Vicki,
    The topics of your posts always seem to come at the right time for addressing those very dilemnas I am currently struggling with. We were just discussing this very point on Monday. If we always begin with the teacher modelling than we are showing our students that the teacher holds all the knowledge and that they are indeed empty vessels waiting to be filled. That is not so. Our question/dilemna was around how to articulate a framework for literacy that supports a student inquiry or problem solving stance.

    • It’s so interesting how many people have said they’ve been thinking the very same thing. Either it’s a case of like minds thinking alike or there’s some kind of new zeitgeist brewing, which I think is a good thing. That does beg the question, though, that you raised about articulating a framework for literacy, which is a really interesting question. I wonder, though, if it’s not really about how we articulate the role of the teacher to support student inquiry or problem solving stance with the literacy goal being to explore what a detail, a scene, a whole text means—i.e., what might the author be wanting us to consider or understand.

  3. A team of teachers and I were just discussing the gradual release of responsibility model yesterday. Debbie Miller recently said that she does not see this process as linear anymore. There is “I do”, “We do”, and “You do”, but maybe not in that order. She spoke about “over-scaffolding” and finding out where the students are in their thinking before you model your own. Interesting. Gives me a lot to think about. Thanks for the post.

    • As I just wrote to Fatima, there’s something almost eerie about how many people have been circling the same questions I raised in this post—and I personally love knowing that Debbie Miller is heading in this direction, too. Her comment reminds me that very few processes are linear and that learning is almost always messy and recursive. And if the Standards have offered an occasion for us to stretch our own thinking and question some of our givens, I think that’s all to the best.

  4. Agreed that this comes at a time as I struggle with how much to model, when to step back etc. Also, how to deal with grades and data! Constant demands for both. I wish I could just give everyone an A, and then just proceed with learning.

    • Hmm. There must be a way of dealing with grades and data so that they’re working in tandem and serving a purpose that feels meaningful, not burdensome. I’m not sure exactly what that would look like, though Linda Reif just popped into my mind. Her book Seeking Diversity talks about the toll of grading, especially in middle and high school when you see so many students. I can’t precisely remember what she offered (though I think it involved getting the students more involved), but you definitely got me thinking.

  5. I agree with Dana’s ideas above. Doug Fisher says the same thing. The modeling doesn’t have to be first. Reading, gathering data on what students can do, and then thinking about a next step or modeling for those who weren’t solid in their thinking would seem to be in order.

    Hard thinking – thanks!!!

    • I’m working on a few more posts about my time in Reggio where they see the teacher first and foremost as a researcher, and that idea of teacher-as-researcher seems embedded in your phrase about ‘gathering data.’ Their goal in Reggio, though, is always about designing next steps that would get the student closer to whatever concept the teacher hoped they’d understand WITHOUT telling them, which I do think is too often what modeling does. It works there because they give students more time to get there on their own, which I fear we simply don’t do here. But here’s to hard thinking! I think it’s really great that so many of us are trying to figure this out.

  6. Sherry, I really feel your pain about that basal series stuff. I’m on the “literacy committee,” too. (It meets every so often, and its mission is not entirely clear.) We gave up an older basal series about 3-4 years ago. Then we went toward a guided reading book room instead of another basal series, but our efforts got sidetracked for various reasons. Teachers in our district are (justifiably) demanding coherence and focus in the K-5 reading, and a basal series is being peddled as the answer. Having seen the H-Mifflin series that is being looked at? Ugh. Others will be considered, too.

    I’ve been trying to expand the options to include something like the Reading Writing Project Units of Study, which seem much more “big picture” friendly, more about setting up thinking and doing workshop routines, and less about skill instruction. The authors also seem like they understand that teacher knowledge and skill is the key ingredient to promoting student learning, not skill instruction from a “cookbook” that seems designed to take the teacher out of the equation. At the very least, I’m arguing that increasing teacher knowledge about learning and literacy, no matter what the “program”, will be crucial to our success. (In the past, our super has talked about moving “from good to great”, a phrase that I’ve now adopted. 🙂 There are no short-cuts. No quick fixes.

    In the decision-making process, I’m TRYING TO BE both a “force for good,” a good team player by doing the work that needs to be done. But I’ve ALSO consciously adopted the persona as the “bearer of bad news” by pointing out the high bar that the CCSS will require students to reach (close, analytical readings done by students independently) and by raising serious questions as to whether basal-type skills instruction will get us there. Using good sources — the website Burkins and Yaris is also fantastic for learning about the CCSS as is the book, Pathways to the Common Core — to substantiate the high bar is really useful. Throw all that in with the idea that the creators of the CCSS call for text-based (rather than a skill-based) instruction and, ironically (at least to me), there might be enough uncertainty and anxiety to open up space to talk about how readers really deal with texts, rather than simply how to deliver uniform content.

    Of course, being the bearer of bad news can make one unpopular with some folks, too, especially if it complicates something that some think should be rather simple. 😦

    If you don’t know the Burkins and Yaris site, here it is:

    Best of luck to you!!! If I can be of any help to you, please let me know.

  7. Wow. Thanks Steve. I do not know what our “choices” are yet. I go way back with our director of elem ed, so I can really talk to her. Our superintendent has made it clear he wants our kids to learn to love to read again. But the general teaching population seems to need that cookbook. At my school only myself and 2 other teachers see things differently, i introduced them to this blog site and the “What Readers..Do” book. I just may be picking your brain some more. Thanks

    • And I could really use help from you, too, Sherry!

      How do we teachers help build positive, lasting change with administrations and colleagues amidst all the uncertainty and pressures, especially at a time when companies are offering up answers and certainty for a “bargain basement price” of only $XX,XXX? How do we honor the real need for work that isn’t all consuming, that allows time for family and the rest of life, but acknowledges that teacher growth and passion for learning will become more, not less, important? How can we help set up systems in our workplace that keep us growing and fit with a vision of learning that is real, not to mention vibrant and fun? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they seem darn important to me. 🙂 In the last year, Vicki’s blog (and book) have been super important to my own growth. Thanks to her and folks like you who have a passion for teaching and learning!

  8. Vicki,
    I so appreciate your thinking in response to my blog about modeling and these are such good questions. Could it be that part of the problem is how we define modeling? How do we show teachers the little nuances that are a part of teaching responsively without boxing them up and making them feel incredibly canned? I wonder if it all lies in the ideas you refer to in Johnston’s work. So much of teaching is “reading” our students and being open and flexible to responding to them and providing opportunities for students to discover that sense of agency that is so engaging. It is what Terry Moher refers to as “teaching not knowing”, in the sense that you never know where you may end up when you sit down to confer with a student or I would even take that further in terms of small or large groups.

    It makes me realize there are many different ways to look at modeling and I have to look back at my own experiences as a reader where I was the most eloquent of word calling and inflection and could “read” anything with great expression…but was never actually thinking about what I was reading. At the end of the story I would simply hunt and peck my way back to the story to find the answers.

    It makes me think of a dramatic experience in the sense that the teacher is on the stage performing with lights in his or her eyes and is unable to see their audience’s reactions. The teacher (actor) just moves forward in the script regardless and hopes that at some point those watching will figure it out. I see lots of great performances, but am looking for so much more in terms of the audience. It is more of an interactive theater where there need to be checks along the way to make sure your audience is with you and even more importantly where their thinking is.

    I like this idea and am going to explore it more…

  9. Pingback: From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons | To Make a Prairie

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