Building a house in a student’s skull — modelling in the English classroom

Getting what’s in my head into a student’s head is not easy. It feels as though there’s a house in my head that needs dismantling and rebuilding somewhere in the student’s skull.

Building a house in a student’s skull — modelling in the English classroom
Photo by Luke Stackpoole / Unsplash

Getting what’s in my head into a student’s head is not easy.  It feels as though there’s a house in my head that needs dismantling and rebuilding somewhere in the student’s skull.  Teaching is, like most human interactions, a puzzling and frustrating business, because we can’t ever really know what’s going on in their heads.  We’d like to, to the point that we can fool ourselves that proxies for learning (i.e. progress) are learning themselves, but we are often left surprised at what a student doesn’t know, or can’t do, or doesn’t remember.  Such stuff is wont on occasion to make one question whether one taught the material to any sort of decent standard; if one concludes that one did, one then questions whether one made any sense when doing so.

I got the sense pretty early on in my teaching career that modelling was important.  It made logical sense that if I wanted them to be able to do a thing, I needed to show them what the thing would look like if they’d done it properly.  I also grasped that it would be helpful for them to see me building the thing, too; likewise, it would be helpful for us to take the thing apart and think about how it was built.  There was nothing wrong with any of this — quite the contrary — but I knew there was something missing.   After modelling — which would take a long time — there were still students who could not do it.  I’d gesticulate at the model, which had taken me ages to write, with increasing agitation.  “How do you not know?  You have a model!”  But there is a world of difference, of course, between seeing an expert doing something and being able to imitate that yourself.  Goodness knows I know that every time I try to play anything moderately difficult on the guitar.  Even if I slow the YouTube video of a performance down, the point at which the audio distorts like some dystopian transmission or Satanic subliminal susurrus, I still can’t imitate what I see happening.  So, if imitating the actions of an ‘expert’ wasn’t helping, what would?

The first step is, in the words of Barbara Bleiman, to ‘meet students where they’re at.’  This means that we can’t assume what they know, or — worse — think that they should know something because it’s ‘just what people should know’ or ‘because I’ve taught them it.’  They know what they know and don’t know what they don’t know.  We’re a storytelling species, and we like to confer our own narratives onto others, where they have no business going.  This is worsened by the fact that — at least comparatively — we are experts and the students are novices.  The difference, put simply, is one of knowledge and connection.  An expert’s internal mental models are complex; they can draw on a wealth of knowledge.  They can draw on this knowledge because it is connected in myriad ways to other information and knowledge; in turn, these connections allow an expert to create.  Steve  Jobs had it right: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.”  Expertise engenders creativity.  Novices, on the other hand, aren’t really very creative (which, n.b., is why they freeze during creative writing; an imagination must be fed and connected) because they can’t make connections.  It isn’t their fault; there just isn’t much to make connections with.  Also, they haven’t had much practice; often, some of the practice they have had has made bad habits (usually the result of workarounds precipitated by lack of competency) horribly permanent (because, as we know, practice makes permanent).

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There’s another barrier, and it’s a big one.  It isn’t limited to novices, though they naturally suffer worse for it.  It is cognitive overload.  It plagues us all.  Human beings’ working memories are woefully inadequate.  We can’t store much in them for long; as soon as we try to store disparate things in them they get overloaded, which is why responded to the bing of an email notification when you’re doing deep work is a terrible idea — your focus is split, your brain needs to boot up to cope with the new task, and you incur a switching cost.  It’s the same in the classroom: if we’re asking students to split focus — or think about more than one thing at a time — we push them further towards the cliff-edge of cognitive overload.  Once this sets in, no learning is happening.  This isn’t because the student doesn’t want to (this, if it is the case, is a separate matter), but because they can’t.

What’s the antidote to all this?  The answer is careful and purposeful modelling.  As I wrote above, I’d been modelling for a long time, but I realised that I’d been focussing on the model itself and not on the thinking behind it.  What students needed to witness was the thought process an expert goes through.  They didn’t need to imitate what I did, because they didn’t know why; they needed to learn how I think.  I needed to teach them how to use my tools.  I couldn’t go into the students skull and build my house there, but I could talk them through how I built mine, brick by brick.   Why is this distinction important?  It is because an expert’s thought processes are all about making connections.  How does this brick work with this brick to build this part of the house?  Combined with careful teaching of knowledge, the modelling shows the student what that knowledge should do once it’s in their head.

What does this look like in the classroom?  Simply put, it looks like an externalised conversation with oneself.  Below I’ve outlined my current process for modelling in broad terms; so far, I haven’t found an aspect of English it doesn’t work for.

  1. Only model one thing at a time. By this, I mean that I need to pick something specific that students need to do better. For example, I might just model topic sentences, or exploring layers of meaning, or writing dialogue in an argument. I do everything I can from the outset to minimise the chance of cognitive overload.
  2. I set the scene. I tell the students that I’m going to show them what goes on in my head when I’m working. I am going to speak my thought process out loud. It is very important that they don’t copy down what I create. It’s worth saying here that I use a visualiser for modelling and that I do it live, most of the time. I might have a few prompts to remind me of what to model, but that’s about it. The reason I work like this is because I think it’s really valuable for students to see me struggle. There are moments in the lesson where I can’t find the right word, or I cross something out. These moments are valuable because students have an image of expertise as effortless. It isn’t — it’s a grind. I want them to see the grind; I want them to see the mistakes and resilience. Part of being an expert is being self-aware enough to reflect on one’s own limitations and failings, and then take steps to make them better.
  3. I start modelling. I am talking. The students don’t write anything. There is silence. All cognitive forces are marshalled towards what I’m doing. It should feel like transubstantiation. There should be a hushed reverence in the room. We stand on sacred ground. I’m being flippant, but there’s truth in the flippancy: their attention must not be divided in any way. Once I have modelled the first part of what I want them to do, I hand over to the students. Tom Sherrington wrote about this baton-style handover to students as key to effective modelling, and I like to do in frequently. Before the students imitate, though, I get them to write down what I spoke about (i.e. my expert thought processes) in their own words. This act of transformation helps them make the thinking theirs; it becomes part of their schema.
  4. Once they have crystallised what they should be thinking about while they work, they then attempt it for themselves.
  5. Once that’s done, they hand back to me. I’ll then check that students can actually do what I’ve just asked them to do. I’ll do this via selective questioning and by putting student work under the visualiser for scrutiny. We get it right, and we repeat the process.

This can all take a long time.  What I’ve described above is very granular and works best when new concepts are introduced, because this is when the risk of cognitive overload is at its greatest.  This method of modelling is all about removing all those little barriers that students have to becoming experts themselves.  So many students have so many little bad habits that get in the way.  By modelling like this, we start to remove them.  I think of each of these barriers as little cracks in the walls of their skull-houses.

Our job is to make sure that house can stand on its own.

Thank you for reading,

Alex