Katy BurkeUncategorized

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In the world of education, somewhere between “lecture” and “group project” is an overlooked, misunderstood, crudely-practiced, and often-omitted wonderful little learning method called “modeling.” It’s as simple as it sounds. A “model” of the work desired (a piece of writing, a performance, a technique, etc.) is presented and the learner observes, contemplates, and seeks to imitate in some meaningful way. It is beautiful in its simplicity, but its simplicity is often why it’s dismissed. Modeling, or mimetic teaching as it’s more formally referred, is written off as elementary and unnecessary without being given a fair trial. If not skipped altogether, the models provided are usually stock, stale, textbook examples or impressive but inaccessible works of mastery. Learners need something in between. Modeling is a Goldilocks game. It’s one of those things that if not “just right,” it just won’t do. You know, like your shower temperature. But when ideal and on point, oh, it’s simply the best.  …Like your shower. The model must not only be possible to recreate, but worth it.

As an aside, I say “recreate” rather than “copy” because mimetic learning is not (or should not) be a cheap mind-numbing exercise in facsimile. The purpose of modeling is a natural cultivation of an art or skill through a learning process of observation, wonder, trial and, ultimately, personal expression. It does happen in the classroom, but it happens more frequently and effectively in everyday life. It is, perhaps, the most natural and instinctive mode of learning. Babies learn language mimetically. Most of what we do is learned mimetically. Yet, it’s taken for granted and underrated in formal education primarily because it’s misunderstood. For modeling to be effective, in the classroom or beyond, it must be real, inspiring, and attainable.

As an English-ish teacher, I can’t tell you how unusable and yawn-worthy I find most sample “student model texts.” Read Sally’s persuasive essay on school uniforms. It’s a real snoozefest despite its perfectly placed transitions and extra conspicuous thesis statement. It’s also fake. So if you were at all skeptical of the purpose of writing, there’s nothing like an English class to confirm its futility. On the contrary, a girl I mentor wrote an excellent persuasive letter to a local barn arguing for better treatment of their rabbits, whom she adored. It worked! That would make an ideal “model text” in a writing class, especially one she’s a part of. Sure it wasn’t “perfect”, but it was passionate, poised, thoughtful…and real, which trumps Frankensteined fiction every time. People don’t want to learn what to do in theory, but what to do in real life. It also doesn’t matter if the real example isn’t perfectly applicable to the learner’s purposes. We are pretty adept at relating insights to our own circumstances. That’s learning.

Models should also inspire while simultaneously being achievable. In fact, part of what makes a model inspirational is that it’s possible. That guy at the gym who rocks out ten pull ups in a row probably inspires somebody, but not this girl. For a model to inspire (rather than intimidate), it has to be in that sweet spot, the ladder rung just within a stretched-arm reach, which is one reason why peer modeling is so effective. At Princeton Learning Cooperative, we sometimes have a string of kids going for their driver’s licenses or getting their first jobs, one after another. These can be nerve wracking endeavors for a teenager, but when peers do them, rather than characters in a movie, they seem feasible. Even if a peer tries and fails, the effort is still inspirational, more so than, let’s say, a celebrity who succeeds at the same task because the learner’s proximity to the source communicates attainability. If he or she can try this, I can try it too. I might also fail, but maybe not. Whereas, celebrities are not people with whom the learner can identify. They’re so foreign they might as well be fictional. The proximity of the learning model to the learner is powerful. 

Real, attainable models inspire action, which is no small thing. A coach models pitching to a young kid, and the kid not only learns how to throw, but how to try, how to listen, how to adapt. A boss models professionalism, and the teen sales clerk learns not only how to show up on time, but how to get up on time and have her uniform prepared, how to be responsible for herself. At PLC, the staff have hobbies that we sometimes bring to work. Joel plays the guitar, Pan makes paper crafts, I’m learning the violin. The kids can learn these particular skills from watching us, but more than that, they’re picking up how to lead a fulfilling life as an adult, how to pursue a new skill, how to maintain skills, how to share them with others. None of this is small stuff. And on occasion, modeling can be life changing. Listen to this first story in Radiolab’s Words episode. It’s about ten minutes long and worth every minute. I won’t give away the story, but I’ll just say this: when an intelligent mind observes good modeling over time, profound and nearly imperceptible understandings are discerned. The power of mimetic learning is that it unveils the unknown in a way instruction never will. 

[Photo Credit: PxHere]