Modelling made easy

Teachers are role models. They spend so much time with the young people that they teach, which makes it only natural that they’ll inspire at least one person. It’s for this reason that we are encouraged – by our initial teacher training providers and our future permanent placements – to consistently model good behaviour.

I’d say that, for the majority, that’s the easy part. Teachers don’t swear in front of children. We shouldn’t raise our voices. We should treat others with respect and kindness. Lots of this comes part in parcel with just generally being a good person. Modelling good behaviour is easy.

Modelling the techniques needed for good exam skills and content acquisition is a whole other kettle of fish.

Chris Runeckles has written an excellent text – Making Every History Lesson Count* – which is invaluable reading for all, historian or otherwise. He wrote of six guiding principles in the classroom for good pedagogy, in which he discusses challenge, explanation, practice, questioning, feedback and modelling.

Today, I’ll be recounting my key takeaways from his chapter on modelling, as well as strategies that you could use tomorrow which could make a heck of a difference.


Have you ever read those recipes on Pinterest that recount a life story before getting to the meat of the recipe? And when they do get there, the formatting is all over the place: there are no numbers, no simple steps that tell you exactly what to do; it’s very easy to get very lost.

This is cognitive overload. It’s where our limited working memory has been overloaded with information, and we can’t cope. That apple crumble you were so eager to create has turned into a mess because you weren’t crystal clear on exactly what ingredients to include. It happens in our lives and also in the classroom.

Runeckles isn’t the only one who agrees with me: Rosenshine, whose text I have already broken down, talks of the importance of breaking down difficult tasks into smaller chunks. He advocates for highly focused opportunities for practicing each new section of learning, and then repeating the cycle.

Modelling each stage

To aid with chunking information in the modelling stage of learning, teachers could aim to model each section by itself and check for mastery at every stage. Only then should we model to students a complete answer. If you rely solely on the latter, that goal will feel much harder to achieve. A really good strategy at this point in time is to show students pre-written answers – even better if they’re from past students whose responses you have included in your ‘portfolio of excellence’. This will show them that, if someone else in this class or in Mr Hamilton’s previous classes could do it, then they can too. Bonus: it reduces that ever-burdensome cognitive load, helping them to work more effectively. Ask the class to keep tweaking this base until it’s perfect.

If you are writing answers, though, it’s much more effective to handwrite this, rather than type it out onto a word doc. This may be because the majority of students will be handwriting in the exam, so find it easier to translate your teachings into their books if it’s closer to what they’ll be doing, too. Personally, I hate writing extended answers on the whiteboard because it means turning away from the class (risky with the naughtier ones!), whiteboard pens always run out on me, and there’s only so much room.

I much prefer using my iPad to blast Google Jamboard onto the projector. This gives me unlimited handwriting room and means that I never have to turn my back on the kids again.

Share the load

Sure, you’re being paid to teach, but that doesn’t mean that you should be doing all the work. If teachers are doing the thinking and the doing, then what are the learners doing? Probably falling asleep, because they’re not engaged.

Once you’re happy with how students have performed at each stage of your modelling, it’s time to remove the scaffolds: ask them ‘what’s the first thing that I should look at?’ if you’re investigating sources or interpretations. Question them throughout the process of writing a model answer, too. Runeckles advises against this the first time, due to cognitive load (our greatest enemy, it seems), but in the later stages, this is great for keeping them switched on, ensuring that they’re copying down what needs to be in their books, and avoids you having to do all of the thinking.

Here are the type of questions you could ask them throughout:

  • What words should I include here?
  • From where am I getting my evidence?
  • How could I make this part more precise?
  • Which part of the source may be useful to include here?
  • How do I focus back on the question now?
  • Which key word should I include, again?
  • How do I connect these ideas?
  • What could I include in the next sentence to fully explain myself?

There was heaps of extra detail I could have included here. If you’re interested in a part two, please do let me know! In the meantime, sound off in the comments any strategies you’ll be trying out in your classroom, and keep your eyes on the blog for my key takeaways from the rest of his book – coming soon.

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