To Model or Not To Model? That Is the Question.

Last week, I had the chance to sit down with my school’s upper school art teacher to discuss a variety of issues.  Somehow we got on the topic of modeling for students.  When I was taking some graduate courses in history education, one of my professors was  a strong advocate for giving students a model to follow, showing them a version of a finished product so they knew what the end goal was for a given project or unit of study.  So if you wanted students to create an iMovie about a topic from American history, you would show them such a movie ahead of time, perhaps a student’s work from a previous year or one you made yourself.  I’ve sometimes used such models, but more and more I don’t.  Let me parse out why.

I understand why some people advocate giving students models. They believe that by showing students models they have a better understanding of what you are asking them to produce and thus produce better results.  They ask, “How can a student produce what you want them to produce if you aren’t explicit?”  A model helps a teacher be as explicit as possible, according to this perspective.

But, and I think the art teacher agreed with me, there is a definite downside to modeling so explicitly.  It can kill creativity, and by giving students models, they may simply parrot the teacher rather than truly understand something.  Simply copying something accurately doesn’t mean the student learned anything in the process.

More and more I favor moving towards modeling my thinking about an assignment rather than the actual assignment itself.  I’m still helping my students, but the help is coming in the form of helping them think about their thinking, think about the assignment.  I may ask questions like, “What do you have to know in order to do this well?  What might be a way to organize this information?  What are you having a difficult time understanding?”  And I let students ask questions of me about assignments, as many as they want, although I don’t always answer.  Sometimes I want them to struggle through on their own.

If I let them struggle through rather than give them a model, I have to be willing to accept less than perfect results, and I have to be willing to spend the time giving them lots of formative feedback and time to edit their work.  That’s the tradeoff.  But I think it’s a good one because I truly think they are learning more in the process.

Having said this, I do sometimes give models, but I try to do this only when something is so completely new to my students that they really have no idea what I’m asking.  For instance, I asked students to create an infographic last week, and most had no idea what an infographic was so I showed some examples.  But when I think my students do have an inkling of what I’m asking, then I think I will let them work through it on their own.

What do you think?



  1. I’ve noticed, especially with projects, that models sometimes stifle creativity, limiting the students before they begin. I just assigned a Character’s Playlist project. I deliberately didn’t show last year’s because I wanted them to decide how they best wanted to present their project – they can burn a disc, create a keynote, do an iMovie. I also didn’t want them to see the song choices last year’s students chose for the characters. Even in teaching writing, though I sometimes do use model essays, I am not sure the analysis transfers when students then write on a different subject or in a different genre.

  2. I think you are absolutely correct! very well stated, Donna.

    David Yohn *Trinity Presbyterian School*

    (334) 213-2150


    *Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.* Phil. 2:3 *2014 Senior Class Verse*

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