Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL
Modelling is an instructional strategy where a teacher demonstrates a new concept or approach to learning and students learn through observation. In his ‘Principles of Instruction’, Barak Rosenshine argues that modelling is an important part of effective teaching and learning.
The role of modelling in Rosenshine’s principles
In that article, Rosenshine lists seventeen ‘principles of effective instruction’; these serve as a synopsis of the article (Rosenshine, p. 19). Two of those concern modelling:
- Think aloud and model steps.
- Provide models of worked-out problems.
Rosenshine reduces those seventeen procedures to his ten ‘principles of instruction’. The fourth of those ten principles is:
‘4. Provide models: Providing students with models and worked examples can help them learn to solve problems faster.’ (Rosenshine, p. 15.)
A ‘worked example’ is a form of modelling where a teacher provides ‘a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or how to solve a problem’ (Rosenshine, p. 15). Rosenshine suggests that ‘more effective teachers’ often ‘provide students with many worked examples so that the general patterns are clear, providing a strong basis from which to learn’ (Sherrington, p. 21). By contrast, Rosenshine argues that ‘less effective teachers’ often do not ‘provide enough worked examples’, which adds to cognitive load, leaves students unsure of procedures and how to apply them (Sherrington, p. 21).
Rosenshine and Sherrington recommend that teachers provide many worked examples and then leave students to finish problems by themselves. The extent to which students complete tasks by themselves depends how far along they are in the process of mastery over the task or skill in question (Sherrington, p. 21). The extent to which students complete problems by themselves is expressed by Rosenshine in terms of the number of steps in a learning process students are expected to complete by themselves.
This method of assisting students towards independent learning and mastery over tasks and skills relates to the concept of ‘scaffolding’: temporary instructional supports used to assist learners, which should be gradually withdrawn as students gain competency (Rosenshine, p. 18). As students gain mastery over a task or skill, less scaffolding is required and students can complete more of the steps in the learning process themselves. Rosenshine and Sherrington argue that using many worked examples supports the process of developing mastery.
Rosenshine gives the name ‘more effective teachers’ to those teachers whose classrooms made the highest gains in standardised achievement tests (Rosenshine, p. 12). He also refers to more effective teachers as ‘master teachers’. The teaching practices of more effective teachers constitute one of the sources of evidence Rosenshine uses to support his principles.
Rosenshine writes that more effective teachers incorporate modelling and scaffolding into the process of offering explanations. By so doing, Rosenshine suggests that master teachers provide well-structured support for students as they build their schemata for new concepts (Sherrington, p. 15).
Rosenshine uses the term ‘schema’ to denote a well-connected network of ideas (Rosenshine, p. 19). Schemata play an important role in his principles, relating to the cognitive science of learning, particularly theories about the ways information gets stored in long-term memory.
These ideas are usefully summarised by Tom Sherrington in his book, Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. Rosenshine’s principles are supported by a learning model from contemporary cognitive science, which Sherrington summarises as follows (Sherrington, pp. 10-12):
- Conceptual information enters our working memory from the environment.
- Working memory is finite and quite small; therefore, we can only take in a limited amount of information at any one time.
- Our long-term memory is unlimited.
- We process information to store it in our long-term memory.
- We retrieve information from long-term memory into working memory when needed.
- We organise information into schemata and build schemata in long-term memory.
- New information typically only becomes stored if we can connect it to knowledge we already have; therefore, prior knowledge significantly influences our capacity to learn.
- The more complex and interconnected our schemata are, the easier it is to make sense of and organise new information which relates to our existing schemata.
- As our schemata become more fully formed and interconnected, we can explore our knowledge and retrieve it more fluently.
- We forget information that we don’t initially store successfully in a meaningful schema or we don’t retrieve frequently enough.
- To replace schemata, we need to ‘re-learn’: ‘If a schema contains incorrect information … we can’t simply overwrite it. A more primitive schema can return to dominate unless we unpick and fully re-learn a correct schema’ (Sherrington, p. 11).
In relation to the above learning model, Rosenshine suggests that more effective teachers recognise the need to deal with the limitations of working memory by breaking down concepts and procedures into small steps, and ensure that students have the opportunity to practise each step (Sherrington, p. 15).
In discussion of Rosenshine’s fourth principle, Sherrington divides the models Rosenshine describes into three types:
- physical representations of completed tasks (e.g., exemplar paragraphs or essays);
- conceptual models (e.g., for understanding the behaviour of particles);
- explicit narration of teachers’ thought processes (e.g., when problem-solving) (Sherrington, p. 17).
The final of those concerns a type of modelling where the teacher ‘thinks aloud’. Rosenshine suggests that more effective teachers are ‘able to narrate the decisions and choices they make’ – for example, where to begin with a maths problem or how to start an essay (Sherrington, p. 20). This is a type of modelling where teachers explicitly narrate their thought processes in tasks, such as solving mathematical problems (Sherrington, p. 17).
The process of teachers narrating their thought processes involves, as Sherrington puts it, making ‘the implicit explicit’. By this, Sherrington means that those who have achieved mastery over a particular task or skill do not need to make their methods or ways of thinking explicit for them to complete the task or engage in the skill proficiently. Making these explicit can help others learn how to better complete the task or engage in the skill in question.
The process of a student gradually gaining independence through modelling and scaffolding as their mastery over a skill or task increases is sometimes called ‘cognitive apprenticeship’. This is the process where a ‘master’ of a skill – i.e., someone who has achieved a level of mastery – teaches that skill to a student (‘apprentice’). The master also supports the apprentice as they become independent at proficiently completing the task or engaging in the skill in question (Rosenshine, p. 18).
 First published in 2010 by the International Academy of Education; republished in 2012 as ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know’, in American Educator. Page references are to the latter.
 Woodbridge: John Catt, 2019. All Sherrington references are to this.