Don’t Be Afraid Of Live Modelling

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How can you confidently implement live modelling in your classroom?

Many teachers are afraid of live modelling. But if we don’t do our thinking aloud in front of our pupils we’re doing them a massive disservice. Isn’t it time all teachers faced their fear so we can help pupils conquer theirs?

Although all of Rosenshine’s 17 Principles of Instruction are important, ‘Think aloud and model steps’ is one of the most vital. And yet, it’s the one that I’ve seen less and less of in recent years. Perhaps it’s because interactive whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations are ubiquitous now. The first lesson I ever taught didn’t involve either. It didn’t even involve a dry wipe marker. Instead, I had to write everything on the board in chalk. Yes, that makes me feel old.

Death by PowerPoint?

There’s no denying that interactive whiteboards have been a game changer where they have been used well. They have allowed teachers to combine multimedia – words, images, video – with considerable ease. Not only have they allowed us to save a lot of time (and paper), but the opportunities for dual coding have been greatly enhanced.

But I can’t help feeling they have also contributed to the loss of something very precious: thinking aloud.

It’s comforting isn’t it, knowing that everything you need is just a click of a button away on the next slide? But I remember a time when this was not always the case. I remember a time when you had to write everything on the board – live! And this often meant speaking your thoughts aloud, especially if you lost your train of thought and had to go back a few sentences to pick it up.

The biggest benefit of this approach is that pupils get to hear their teacher thinking their way through something. They hear it being broken down into the steps they will need to take themselves.

Show don’t tell

The best way to teach pupils how to put down their ideas on paper or to solve a problem is to do it yourself. When we’re on a journey, we need to show them how to get to their destination. It’s no good just telling them.

Making mistakes, unintentionally or otherwise, is one of the powerful aspects of live modelling. We need to show our pupils that we too are not immune to getting things wrong. If we don’t, how are they ever going to learn that failing and picking yourself up is a vital step on the road to making genuine progress?

A script for live modelling an essay/longer answer

Over the years, I’ve been refining my approach to live modelling, especially for essays/longer answer questions. I always imagine that I’m setting out on a Lord Of The Rings-style journey with my class (or ‘fellowship’ if you prefer). We’re setting out to conquer the thing that holds all pupils back from success: fear.

I have used plural pronouns (‘we’) throughout my script below. Sometimes it is appropriate to model exclusively in the first person ‘I’. You may not want audience participation, especially if it’s the first time attempting this sort of task. But if you’ve done something similar as a class before, and you want to promote retention by including your pupils in the decision-making process, stick with ‘we’.

If you’re concerned pupils will misbehave while you’re busy on the board, insist they copy down everything you write on the board – mistakes and all.

1. “Do we have everything we need?”

Model collecting your materials. Quotations? Dates? Key words? Whatever you need for your subject, model getting it together.

This means picking up the relevant bits from primary texts, stimulus materials or notes from previous lessons. Display these somewhere so you can draw on them when you need to, lightening the cognitive load. If you have two whiteboards (electronic + traditional dry wipe), perhaps use one to display the materials and keep the other clear for writing the essay.

2. “Ok, let’s go…”

Put pen to paper/marker to whiteboard. This is the scariest step for most pupils. It’s like leaving the shire, the safety of home. The potential for failure can be overwhelming and stop them writing.

So show them you’re not afraid. Write the first thing that comes into your mind. Your brain is primed with everything you need so it probably won’t be too far off the mark. Even if it is, making corrections live is essential.

3. “Are we going in the right direction?”

Before you go too far, take a look back. Check what you’ve written against the success criteria. Treat the mark scheme like the map. It has your destination but doesn’t tell you how to get there. For that you need a compass.

4. “We could include this… or we could write this instead…”

Whether you’re inviting audience participation or you’re just talking aloud to yourself, it is crucial that you voice your options loudly and clearly.

If the class have had a go at something similar before, you might get them to be your compass. If so, ask them to suggest next steps. You could even say “I think I might do this…” and ask them whether they think this is a good idea or not. Effective modelling goes hand in hand with canny questioning.

5. “I think we’re going the wrong way here… Let’s do this instead.”

If you make a mistake, don’t rub it out. Instead, cross it through and move on. Show your students that struggle is normal!

6. “Let’s see how we did.”

When you’ve finished, look back at the success criteria/mark scheme to evaluate your performance. Although things will have gone well overall, it’s vital to look at the crossings-out to see where you could have gone completely down the wrong path. Pupils will have learned the importance of reflecting on their own performance.

Technology: it’s how you use it

I don’t mean to come across as a Luddite here. One of the best pieces of kit to equip a classroom with is a visualiser. They can be a great asset for live modelling. But, as with all technology, it depends on how it is used. I’ve seen too many visualisers being deployed as a glorified camera to merely show pupils’ completed work – usually the best example of something.

My feedback to those teachers has always been: where’s your work? In particular, where was your work in progress? Did you share this with the pupils? Did they hear you thinking aloud?

Whatever their tool of choice – visualiser, whiteboard, chalkboard – teachers who get the best from pupils know that live modelling is essential.

David Lowbridge-Ellis

David Lowbridge-Ellis has 15 years experience in the classroom and has been a senior leader for more than 10 of those. Deputy Head Teacher of Barr Beacon School, he is responsible for CPD, staff well-being, quality of teaching, parental engagement, equality and diversity. An SLE for assessment, he has worked with many schools, in the UK and worldwide, to slash their marking burdens whilst improving feedback to pupils. He is most passionate about leading change (the focus of his Masters degree) and, in his time away from education, writes a travel blog with his husband.

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