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Live Modelling: Maximising Student Thinking

Live modelling is such a powerful strategy to help disclose the deep disciplinary thinking that can so easily remain invisible to students. However, as with anything, it is also possible for it to go wrong or at least for it be used sub-optimally.

One way this can happen is if we don’t focus enough on what the students are doing when we live model something. So often we become so immersed in what we’re doing, trying to craft that perfect sentence whilst simultaneously verbalising how we’re doing this, that we momentarily forget we have a class in front of us. Cognitive overload can just as easily impact teachers as it can students: it is difficult to live model, verbalise our thought process, and manage student activity all at the same time. If we fall into this trap student behaviour will likely default to one of two things: 1) copying down what you write word for word; 2) passively listening to what you’re saying.

In both of these scenarios live modelling is happening, but students aren’t likely to be engaged in the thinking that underpins the choices that are being made. So, we need to consider not only what we model, but, crucially, how we do it and even more crucially that this ‘how’ facilitates rigorous thinking. And we also need to be really explicit as to the expected means of participation so that students know what to do during this live modelling.

There are many ways to achieve this, but here is one strategy that I like and use a lot.

Rigour Hides in Margins

I use an extra wider margin (scruffily drawn in pen on my exercise book) a lot in my teaching. It is a great way to annotate what I’m modelling as I’m verbalising it, helping to slow myself down but also making my decisions more explicit. However, there is another use for this.

Before undertaking live modelling, I ask students to draw an extra wide margin on a couple of pages of their exercise book. I explain that this is a space for them to jot down anything they notice me do that they think is interesting, important or that they would like to try themselves in their next essay. This could be a turn of phrase I use, a structural choice, how I analyse language, an idea, and so on. In reality, what they note will be directed to some extent by the conversation that takes place as I model and the kinds of things I say as I explain the rationale behind my choices. However, nonetheless, I’m not explicitly saying ‘write this down’. I might also, at this point, specify a specific aspect of the writing process I want them to focus on, ignoring or at least pushing to one side other aspects of what is happening. ‘Today, I want us to focus on saying multiple things about the same image so pay really close attention to any time you see this’.

So, the live modelling begins. Students have their pens at the ready, listening and looking carefully for things I say and do that they might want to use. Already, then, this simple instruction (jot down in the margin what you like) has reframed the student role from passively observing to attentively seeking out things to adopt. But, we don’t stop there. As I model, I pause and ask questions. Why do you think I did this? What could I talk about next do you think? Would it be a good idea if I…? Would it be a mistake for me to…? Would it be better or worse if I had done this instead…? What could make this better? Such questions are handled in the normal manner: maybe prefaced by paired discussion or very short bursts of writing (everyone write the next sentence). And then we go back to my live modelling and continue.

But, notice what is happening here. Students aren’t simply watching or listening. They are alert to things to write in their margin. They are actively seeking such material out. And very importantly they are not simply copying out what you are writing. Rather, they are commenting in the space of their margin on what you are writing. Why does this distinction matter? If given nothing else to do students will copy. It’s nice to have a copy and to know they can refer to this at a later date. But, the danger is that copying is not thinking. Focus is directed to the mechanics of copying (what does that word say? Slow down…Turn back a page…) and not to the thinking that governs what they are copying. But, it’s the thinking we want to leverage and maximise. So, explicitly asking students not to copy but rather to pick out aspects of your model that they like as well as asking lots of questions is a big win.

Yet, we’re still not finished. When we reach a natural pause point we stop our modelling. By this point, students would have accumulated various things in their margin based on what they’ve been hearing and watching. Now, it’s time to do something with this material. As they’ve only been writing in their margin, the rest of the page will be blank. Now, we give them a different but similar question and ask them to have a go on their own, but we explain they can use their marginal annotations to help them. In jotting down features of your own response, they have effectively created a marginal scaffold strip in their exercise book to help them to write their own essay. It also works especially well because it will broadly follow the shape and sequence of your own essay, making it even easier to map these notes onto their own work. There’s also a pleasing sense of ownership since, after all, these are the parts of your essay they liked and wanted to adopt and try. Well, now they can.

And so this process is comprised of two stages:

1. The teacher live modelling during which students are jotting down aspects of the process they wish to emulate alongside lots of pauses to ask questions

2. Students practising on their own, but using the marginal notes created during (1) to scaffold this attempt.

I’ve found this to be a great way to transition between teacher modelling and student practice, placing a high premium on student thinking and active engagement in the writing process.

Other Strategies

Whilst the above does work very well in my experience and achieves our stated aim of maximising student thinking during the modelling process, there are other ways to do this too. Here are just a couple:

1. Co-construction: This is perhaps the default strategy for ensuring student thinking during live modelling and for good reason. It has, broadly speaking, been popularised under the banner of ‘You Do’. Here, students are involved in generating ideas and suggestions for the model response, which we can then incorporate. This works especially well when there is an emphasis placed on why students suggest what they do. Why that? Could you explain your thinking? It’s also useful to ask for a range of suggestions and then to select the best one, explaining what makes it the best.

2. Marginal self-assessment: Another great use of the margin could be to set up a very clear success criteria prior to starting the modelling. As you then live model, you can marginally annotate your own response drawing attention to where exactly you are meeting the success criteria. You can then hand over to students for independent practice, but after they have done this you could ask them to mark up in their margin where and how they have met the established success criteria. This is a really simple but effective way to embed self assessment into writing.

3. Over to You: It can also work really well to intersperse modelling writing with opportunities for students to continue the writing. It could be you begin with an opening sentence and ask them to write the next chunk or that you begin a moment of analysis before then asking students to continue by further unpicking the image. This can work well if you use MWB, scanning the room to see how students developed whatever you had started, perhaps then selecting a couple to explore how they work well as next steps. This could be done at a really micro level (how might you finish this sentence) or a macro level (write the next paragraph).

Preparing Live Modelling

All of the above focuses on what students could be doing when we live model something, and in almost all scenarios we should be aiming to avoid passive observing (unless for very short bursts of writing) and blind copying. However, it doesn’t touch on the preparation that goes on before we even enter the lesson. There is, I think, a tempting conflation between live modelling and spontaneous modelling, seeing live modelling as the teacher in the moment writing something. This is, after all, how it appears to students.

Yet, it is much better to plan exactly what you want to model before hand so that the quality of the model is as high as possible and you can pre-empt moments in which to pause and ask questions. We give the impression to students that it is being created in the moment, with us disclosing ostensibly spontaneous decisions, but in reality, at least broadly, we know what we plan to say. This also helps us to embed high-frequency mistakes into our model so that we can then demonstrate live how to overcome these mistakes, verbalising the metacognitive and strategic decisions we take when confronted with such a problem. And, of course, this helps to mitigate the very real teacher overload that can be produced by trying to model, verbalise and track students all at once.

In my own teaching, I tend to script (either full or in skeleton form) what I plan to write on one side of my modelling exercise book and then, in the lesson, use the other side of the double spread to model, using the first as a reference point. My planning page is conveniently hidden from the visualiser, maintaining the illusion, which I think is important, that the model is being created genuinely ‘live’.

A Couple of Caveats

1. This post has in mind a specific variety of live modelling related to writing. Of course, live modelling, if we wish to give it that name, is something we do all the time every lesson. We model our thinking in discussion, in expressing our ideas, in approaching a poem as we explain how it makes us feel and why. We model behaviour. We model the disciplinary habits of thought that constitute the study of Literature. Most of this modelling is done in the moment of class interaction and is likely subconscious. We may not even think of it as modelling, although it is.

2. Not all live modelling needs to be pre-planned or orchestrated in the manner described in this post. There will be moments where we wish to pause the class because we have identified a misconception and model another way of doing whatever it might be. These are of course genuinely in the moment. Yet, still, most of the live modelling we do, especially if it is preemptive and intended, should be prepared in the manner described above in order to maximise its efficacy.

Making It Even More Concrete: From Planning to Classroom

So, let’s try to make this even more classroom-specific. I decide I want to spend some or all of an upcoming lesson live modelling something, bearing in mind the above two caveats. What next?

The first thing to do is to decide what specifically I want to live model. Is it a specific skill like embedding quotations or saying multiple things about the same image? Perhaps, how to transition from one point to another in an essay? There should be an intended function to the session of live modelling beyond just ‘I’d like to do some writing with my class’. Now, the function need not always be as granular as the above, it could be the act of extended writing is itself what you intend to model in which all the above could come into play. This will depend on class and identified needs.

So, once I have identified why I’m modelling with this class at this specific time I can focus on what I’m going to model and how. The ‘what’ will typically just be in relation to whatever text we are currently studying as the modelling should, where possible, grow out of and be anchored to the studied text just like the short bursts of writing that students would be doing or teaching sentence stems. But, I can go further and ask myself what exactly? This is where I’ll typically pre-plan what I’m going to model. This pre-planning could be anything from a bullet point list of things I want to include that then scaffolds my own writing or something more extended. I also usually plan for errors so that I can model how to overcome them.

Next, I ask myself what will the students be thinking about and doing when I’m live modelling this? As this post has suggested, the answer to this question will very rarely be just listening or copying. Instead, I’ll plan to do the marginal annotation and independent practice routine or focus more on co-construction. Or both as they are of course not mutually exclusive. Or, I’ll plan for them to listen as I disclose (using the margin) how exactly I’m meeting an established success criteria, but then with the express intention they do their own immediately after me and also mark-up where they’ve meet the success criteria. Or maybe, I’ll intend to start them off before transitioning into a longer period of them writing. The point, though, is I’m thinking carefully about what they will be doing: maximising my thinking maximises their thinking.

I’m now ready to go to the lesson. I’ll take with me my modelling exercise book (with notes and plan appended to one side of a double sided spread), a visualiser and (probably) a set of MWB. These are great for co-constructing as it means I can seamlessly transition from me writing to them finishing off a sentence or continuing a point. I can then sample the class and pick out a couple to probe further before transitioning back to teacher modelling. Once the lesson begins I’ll then make it really clear what we’re doing and why as well as explaining what exactly students will be doing.


3 thoughts on “Live Modelling: Maximising Student Thinking

Add yours

  1. Really love this blog and found it very useful. Would love you to do a video of you doing this in class!


  2. Incredibly useful as always, thank you Andy. I’m about to do some whole school CPD work on improving writing – and want to explore modelling for all in greater depth. The quality of ideas you offer for English is so helpful – I just need to crack on and take a visualiser with me as I move from room to room!!

    Vicky Hawking English and Media TeacherAssistant Head for Teaching & Learning SLT

    *Caritas Excellence Together *

    01273 558 551 Ext: 249


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