Modelling: What it is and Why it matters

“Where was the modelling in that lesson?” asked a colleague who observed my teaching in my first few weeks.

After she spoke, I searched my brain for an adequate answer to this question and found nothing…I didn’t really know what it meant, not in the classroom anyway. She never told me what it was nor did she explain why it was important but it left a lingering feeling that there was a gaping chasm in my practice that needed to be filled.

It wasn’t until some excellent training from Talk for Writing and some observations of some superb teachers in my NQT year I realised how essential ‘modelling’ in all its guises is in the teaching process in every subject in the primary school. This post outlines some of my thoughts on this core principle of teaching.

What is modelling?

I’ve struggled to find adequate definitions for this pedagogical principle that can be said simply and be defined adequately. So, here’s mine:

Modelling is the process in which a teacher demonstrates, represents and provides a clear framework for the ‘how’of  the leaning of a lesson. It is the next logical step in the teaching process after explaining new knowledge (see here and here for my posts on explanations).

 Modelling is not telling a pupil what a relative clause is but showing them how to use it in a sentence.

 Modelling is not explaining how to line up digits in column subtraction but showing how you would work out the calculation from start to finish.

 Modelling is not simply giving three steps to hitting a forehand in tennis but showing pupils a well-executed forehand while you explain the steps succinctly.

 Furthermore, modelling is not simply writing a sentence using a semi-colon; it is ‘talking out loud’ about how and why you will use that piece of punctuation in your writing.

 As Mel Scott and Jo Payne in their excellent book show, modelling is not only needed in lessons; with young children, it is needed in building routines and behaviours that will set them up for later school life. In this sense, this modelling process is made acutely obvious when pupils join from other schools half way through the year. They become disruptive not because they are necessarily poorly behaved (although I have had a few who have been like this) they are more often disruptive because they don’t understand the expectations or routines of your classroom. You realise at that point how far you’ve brought your pupils and sigh that you will now have to model them all again…this particular type of modelling is best discussed in another post although it is linked.

Models and Modelling: key distinctions

I learned the difference between these two the hard way. When I first started teaching, I once read through a Newspaper report with my pupils, asked a few questions and said that this is ‘what a good one looks like’. At that point I then got them to have a go at writing a first paragraph. Massive mistake.

Through this, I learnt that as teachers we can’t just provide models, images, blueprints and exemplars of exceptional work for our pupils. Don’t get me wrong, they’re important and have there place but it’s like telling a beginner swimmer to watch Michael Phelps swim up and down and then getting her to dive in and try a length of butterfly. Models are the end goal. Modelling is the process to get there.

I have found that some of the most productive lessons have been when I’ve helped my pupils delve deep into these models, understand their features, address misconceptions about them, discuss them, compare a range of them and ultimately provide a platform to compare their learning – like a compass guiding the way to excellence.

A model, for me at least, is ‘the essence of the outcome’ – the final destination. Modelling is the road map for how we get there.

3 Ways to Model

Note: You’ll notice that none of my titles for these techniques are particularly fancy. That’s mostly because my pupils have named them and can remember the general processes and structures for what this sort of modelling entails. I love this, since it means that they are actively engaged in the different types of modelling and have become familiar with the inputs I give them.

1.“I, we, you” modelling.

In writing, I like to drip feed my ‘model’ to my pupils. I might write a new model a few lines at a time with them watching, making all of my thoughts and decisions clear throughout, then get them to write their own opening paragraph, then stop, discuss, analyse and consider any improvements they can make. At this point, when I ask them why they would change a word or phrase in my model, they refer back to the previous models of excellence that they have gathered saying: ‘sir, it’s because you need to engage the reader with a rhetorical question, that’s what the Usain Bolt article did’…for me, this is a small piece of evidence that my modelling is sinking in.

In Maths, MR WJ Teach really helped me clarify some of my ideas around how models and modelling work. Let’s take the topic of long multiplication as an example. It is essential that I explain and model the process as expertly as possible, twice even three times and make sure I am consistently referring to the steps I need to follow in order to get the right answer at the end. At this point, after explaining and showing pupils what to do, I would then get them to ‘do it with me’, stopping at each stage, discussing what to do and where things might go wrong. This helps with dual coding and also giving pupils a model they can constantly refer back to throughout the next few lessons.

Both of these examples follow a simple ‘I, we, you’ structure. I’ve done this so many times in lessons now that some of my pupils have said to me in the ‘you’ stage, sir, I’m not ready, can we go back to the ‘we do’ stage…

Of course there are other ways you can model. Here are two more ways that I’ve used modelling in my classroom.

2. “Making something better”

There are two different ways I do this. The first one is I give two pieces of writing (or maths calculations) to my pupils that need to be improved. At that point, they then work with a partner to find all the good things in the piece and all the things that can be improved. We then discuss this as a class. This often stimulates excellent discussion, for example, in response to being asked to improve:

‘the man walked, dragging his feet towards the door,’ some of my pupils responded:

“I think you could use the word ‘trudged’ instead of walked sir, because it sounds more sad”

Another response soon after was:

“Actually I think you could change this sentence to start it with a subordinate clause, like this: As he was dragging his feet towards the door, the man felt sorry for himself.”

Double improvements, before I’ve even questioned or guided pupils towards the features they need – yay! The possibilities are endless with this. There’s natural in built differentiation and the pressure of coming up with your own story line or description is taken off pupils so that they can focus on developing their writing skills. I love doing this!

The other one is to just give one piece that needs to be improved. In Maths, I’ve given out calculations that James has done wrong and asked my pupils to correct them. This has been a really useful task for three reasons. First, it helps me see who really understands how to do the calculation and can explain it articulately. Second, it helps me see those who can get them right in basic arithmetic practice but when it comes to explaining they just say: “he’s wrong because he’s wrong sir” and need to develop their ability to communicate their mathematical ideas and those who have all sort of misconceptions and need to go over how to do the calculation in the first place.

3. Writing Lab

The final way I model is by typing up or taking pictures of student work and discussing them with the rest of the class. I normally do this by finding one that is where it should be and one that can be improved. The level of engagement is excellent when I do this sort of modelling. Pupils are fascinated by everyone else’s work and are keen to ‘magpie’ ideas from one another and offer feedback as to how they can improve. One note of caution with this though: I try and choose work from pupils who feel comfortable with their work being displayed in front of the class if I’m going to be critiquing it. A side point is that I’ve noticed that when I type up pupil work verbatim, regardless of whether there are little mistakes like missing commas or capital letters, read it out loud and then discuss it, pupils make less ‘silly mistakes’ after they are explicitly discussed.

How do you model?

Further Reading


On explanations (the precursor to modelling):

From Nick Hart

From Andy Tharby

From the Class Teaching blog:



‘Making Every Primary Lesson Count’ by Jo Payne and Mel Scott (read my review here)

‘Teach Like a Champion’ by Doug Lemov (specifically ‘name the steps’ as a techniques)

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