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Importance of Modeling as a Teaching Tool

Written by Phil Mayhoffer

Last week, in an attempt to maintain sanity, my wife and I took a break to play a game of charades. Edison watched closely and then repeated each clue—dancing like a monkey or flapping imaginary bird wings—in his own funny way.

Of course, this imitation is both adorable and a natural stage of human development, but it reminded me of the importance of modeling as a teaching tool.

Modeling—It’s More Than Just Showing

While kids are young, modeling might take the form of simply demonstrating behaviors. As kids get older, the benefits of modeling are compounded by narrating their actions, followed by explaining the reasons behind what they do. 

Some of the most important modeling we, as educators, can do relates to showing and explaining how to learn.

When I was a new teacher, I thought that delivering great lessons was going to help my students the most. But I quickly learned that what I thought was “great” wasn’t engaging learning for my students. 

In many ways, I was trying to “teach” rather than help students “learn.” 

As I progressed in my teaching practice, I realized that students need to see learning in action. I began showing them how to identify and use resources. I highlighted the challenges I faced when learning something new. 

In short, I gave up on showing the polished version of prepared teaching and let them see the reality of learning—mistakes and all! 

It definitely wasn’t easy to do and I don’t claim to have perfected it, but leaning into the vulnerability of showing the whole process—truly modeling learning—made for a much more rewarding learning experience for me and my students.

Read on to discover ideas on modeling learning at home or through distance education:

Tips for Teachers

  • Share your process. Focus less on delivering polished content and more on demonstrating your own learning. This can be especially challenging with distance teaching and learning, but take the time to highlight what you do to learn new things. Consider recording a tutorial video for something that you’ve never done before, which can show what you do to learn something well enough to teach it. It may feel vulnerable, but it’s empowering to discuss with your students how you learn.
  • Identify and model positive behaviors. Think about the behaviors you want in your students. Use examples from the media, your own life, and from their classmates. Then explain why that behavior matters and how it impacts the class’s learning. Consider inviting students to share positive behaviors that they have noticed.

Tips for Parents

  • Share your work process. Involve your kids in the learning you experience as you complete your work. If you’re working from home right now, it’s a great time to talk to your kids about the skills you have to develop to be successful with the projects you do for work. 
  • Develop a talent. Consider taking the time to learn a new skill or develop a talent with your child. Choose something that you can both do so you can experience the learning process together. Right now, you’ll find a number of online learning services that are offering free extended trials to their resources. Try a course in cooking from Gordon Ramsay, develop a neglected talent for sketching using a range of courses on SkillShare, or be inspired with some awesome DIY projects from creators like Bob Claggett on YouTube.
Phil Mayhoffer

Phil Mayhoffer loves to explore how creativity, curiosity, and play interact throughout the process of learning. As a middle school teacher for four years, he dove into design thinking and project-based learning to make his classroom a place to foster and support innovation in his students. He believes that one of the primary purposes of our existence is to learn how to create and thereby contribute to the beauty of the world around us. Phil strives to weave that purpose into the work he does by setting the stage for rich learning experiences that harness the power of play and empower learners to make a difference.

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