They Can Do It!

I’ve always been the type of teacher that likes to model what to do. I model a lot. Having taught students with autism for many years, I’ve seen great results with having a visual, providing an example, and really demonstrating what a final product should look like.

This year, I’ve made a lot of changes in my teaching style and approach to teaching and learning, and I’ve struggled with how much modelling I should be doing. Please don’t get me wrong here. I think students benefit from think alouds, I think that we need to do modelled lessons, and I think that strong examples help students better their work. Maybe the modelling though, doesn’t have to be modelling the exact activity. Maybe it’s okay to say that an activity is going to be a challenge, that the students need to work through the challenge, and that there’s a lot of value in doing this.

This week, I really pushed myself to not give all of the answers. In class, we’ve been working on a media literacy/writing/reading/art project inspired by Angie Harrison (@techieang), a Grade 3 teacher in York Region. My students researched past Olympic mascots using this website, and then reflected on what they learned. Then they created their own Olympic mascot for the upcoming Olympic games. After designing their mascots, students could choose how they wanted to create it. Here’s a book of the process and the results.

This was a very self-directed project. On Wednesday, when we created our mascots, I didn’t model how to make the mascots. I let the students figure out what to do. It was incredible to watch! The children helped each other. They problem solved together. When a child came to me with a question, I did something that I don’t normally do: I said that I wasn’t sure how to solve it. The child waited for a minute, looked at me, and then walked over to a friend and got the answer from him instead. Students were modelling for other students and becoming self-directed, self-motivated learners. I love this!

It wasn’t just on Wednesday that I saw this happen though. On Thursday, my Grade 1 and 2 students completed our final science project on structures (for Grade 1) and simple machines (for Grade 2). The Grade 1’s were inspired by Jared Bennett’s blog post on document cameras, and they used recyclable materials and classroom materials to make their own document cameras. Students made plans, experimented, and tried again. They helped each other solve problems, and in the end, all of the document cameras worked.

With the Grade 2’s, I tried a different approach. I told them up front that I have absolutely no idea how to make a car. This is very true. I showed the students all of the materials, and I explained that their car had to move with the use of a blow dryer. Then I let the students figure things out for themselves. The only thing that I did was help cut open some boxes, as I didn’t want any cuts. The students drew for me where to cut though, and I just did the snipping. The children figured out the rest on their own. Many students needed to make changes to their cars throughout. Numerous students helped each other out and problem solved together. A few students decided to work independently, and tried one way, made adjustments, and tried again. I wish that I had a video camera running in the classroom at the time, as it was incredible to just sit back and see this learning happen. The activity itself wasn’t modelled, and yet, all of the students met with success. Then, after testing the cars, the students even reflected on their learning and figured out what they would do differently the next time.

After seeing what happened this week, I definitely won’t give up on modelling for students, but my approach to modelling will change. I’m going to intervene less with help, and let students work through more problems on their own. I will support them in their learning, but not “steal their struggle.” It’s amazing what all students can do!

How do you balance the need to model, the need to guide, and the need to let students become independent learners? I’d love to hear your stories as well!


8 thoughts on “They Can Do It!

  1. Awesome blog post….it is truly a struggle to decide when give a model and when to let them explore….especially in areas that students don’t have a lot of experience..we have to be willing to give an A to a student who struggles and may fail but who can clearly articulate what they would do different next time…..I can recall last year when I wanted my gr 3 students to do a bit strips comic around the character trait of Honesty..I modelled a potential problem and solution and then got 20+ copies of my story a week later.

    • Thanks for the comment, Colin! This is my struggle as well. I like to model, and see value in having students understand what is being expected of them, but if children are just going to reproduce what you did, then I have issues. This week really taught me that students can try and struggle and figure things out on their own. We don’t need to always model the solution. I especially like your comment about the “A.” I think that this is very true!


      • I think it’s like a swing over to one side..say, letting the kids struggle without a concrete final product demo and many kids surprise you ….but kids some kids struggle and make little progress. Which leads you to want to do more demoing..and then you swing the other way..then rinse and repeat.

        • This is so true, Colin! Your comment though made me think about the need for differentiated instruction. Maybe this applies to “modelling” as well. If students are struggling and getting no where, maybe instead of teaching to the full class, we pull a small group aside and assist them. It’s almost like the true, “guide on the side.” I’m not perfect at this yet (by any means), but I’m trying this small group approach more and with greater results. It’s made me realize that not everything needs to be taught to everyone.

          Thanks for getting me thinking!

  2. Another highly reflective blog post! Yes, modeling is very important in reading and writing but in true inquiry tasks such as the cars, mascots and document camera activities the point is to let the students discover and learn not copy the teacher’s product. I’m sure you had discussed some criteria to be successful and they did have access to real models such as their own toy cars, the photos of previous mascots and your class document camera. You did need to model the ‘process’ of making these items. I think teachers mix up the term modeling and feel they need to model the process of inquiry. Teachers can post success criteria, provide a goal as an outcome and let support with prompts. I would add that maybe a class chart could be developed about what to do when you are stuck. ‘Try a different strategy or material.” “Relook at your plan and see what is needed.” “Ask a friend to explain their strategy.” etc… I think teachers also need to develop the prompts they need to use during this exploration. As you did Aviva, you gave prompts instead of answers. When strategies are new for teachers sometimes prompt cards can help. Prompts such as , ” what strategy did you try, why do you think it isn’t working!” ” what else could you try!” “What
    other materials do you think you might need?” “What is going well so far? Why do you think that?” it also helps to stop the group at certain points to have the class share their successes and challenges. This might spur an idea and encourage them to modify their product. However, in the end it’s not really about the product it’s about the thinking process. This is sometimes hard for teachers because they don’t know how to capture it and end up grading the final product instead of the thinking. Referring back to the achievement chart and using video, digital photos, Livescribe pens and teacher notes is a way to put this thinking into an assessment that will inform your next instructional points.
    Your students are so lucky to be in a room with a teacher who is constantly learning and growing in their thinking,

    • Thanks for the comment, Angie! I never really thought of this before, but you’re absolutely right. I think I was thinking of “modelling” in the same way for all activities, and that’s not the case. Yes, we did have success criteria posted, but I love your idea of an anchor chart that students can create with the teacher for what to do when they’re stuck. The questions you’ve added here as well are fantastic. I’m going to “favourite” this post, as I know I’ll be looking back at these questions again.

      Thanks for always pushing my thinking and helping me become a better teacher! I’m so glad I get to learn from you!


  3. You are the reflective teacher who puts themselves out there and welcomes feedback. You willingly accept the feedback and adjust your practice. That’s all your doing! I’m just a sounding board who puts out some questions.
    So glad to be part of your PLN.

    • I’m so very glad to have that sounding board and feedback from you! Your suggestions have really helped me create some positive changes in my classroom for my students. Thank you!!


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