Shaping versus Modelling

Dr. Clare Brant was the first Aboriginal psychiatrist in Canada and a professor of Psychiatry at University of Western Ontario. In 1982 he presented Mi’kmaq Ethics & Principles, which included an examination of the differences in teaching between native and non-native cultures.

Now the Teaching; Shaping Vs. Modelling

This is a more technical kind of thing. The white people use this method of teaching their children – it’s called ‘shaping’. Whereas the Indians use ‘modelling’. Shaping is B.F. Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning”, if you want to look into that one. Say a white person is teaching a white kid how to dress – he uses the shaping method, one way being “rewarding successive approximations” of the behaviour he wants. Some are really complicated; for instance, if a white woman wants to teach her kid how to dress, she puts his sock on halfway and encourages him to pull it up, finishes dressing him and says he’s a good boy having done that much. The next day he learns to pull the whole sock on, then the other sock. Now that process takes about six weeks. But the white mother who does not have all that much to do can take that time to do that sort of thing every morning to teach her kid how to dress. So in this group that we ran, with these young Native people in London, we started to sniff this out, and there is nothing random about this, as a matter of fact. I asked Mary, a Native person, how she taught her kid to dress and she said, “I didn’t, he just did it.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” It came to me that she did it until he was four or five years old, and then one day when the kid felt competent, he took over and did it himself. He did it then ever after, unless he was sick or regressed in some way.

Brant concludes this section by stating:

I’ve been having some collaboration with a professor of education, and he says that modelling is the best way to teach people. But shaping is the method that has to be used because there is so much information that has to be imparted in the system that you cannot use modelling. I suppose that the ultimate method would be for the teacher to go up to the blackboard and do algebraic equations for 7 or 8 months and invite one of the kids to come join him and do one with him. and maybe if one of the kids got interested, or knew how to do it, he could start solving the algebraic equation. But that’s not going to happen in the school system. There’s just not enough time.

I think that our industrial society has come full circle and in a McLuhanesque reversal we are overwhelmed by information. No longer can we use shaping but we have to reverse back to modelling. Shaping worked when our environment was complicated, but it is now complex. As knowledge expands and new information is constantly added, who has the base knowledge to do the shaping anyway? In our internetworked world, modelling how to learn is a better strategy than shaping on a pre-defined curriculum.

As can be seen by Dr. Brant’s examples, with modelling the learner is in control and with shaping the teacher is in control. This takes me back to something we were told about toilet training children.

Q: How long will it take if you train (shape) them?

A: About 3 months.

Q: How long will it take if you let them learn (model) by themselves?

A: About a quarter of a year.

2 Responses to “Shaping versus Modelling”

  1. Todd

    At work, we stress the importance of Tell, Show, Do, Review as a training model. This illustrates the importance of showing. At home, one of the reasons we homeschool our children is so that we can do more modeling. It’s interesting to think that we’ve migrated to shaping over time to become more efficient.


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