“modelling is the best way to teach”

When we teach through modelling behaviour, the learner is in control, whereas teaching by shaping behaviour means the teacher is in control. In Western society, shaping has been the dominant mode for a very long time. But in other societies, it has not been the norm. For instance, Dr. Clare Brant (PDF) was the first Indigenous psychiatrist in Canada and a professor of Psychiatry at the 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.”

With a standardized curriculum and constant testing, there is never enough time for most school students to fully learn. There is too much information and much of it is without context. But mastery often comes from modelling. It is how the apprentice becomes a journeyman and in time a master. It is not done in isolation.

The core method (of six main components) for the teacher/master in cognitive apprenticeship is modelling. This can be aided by external coaching and scaffolding, but it is up to the learner to spend time on articulation, reflection, and exploration. Developing mastery requires deliberate practice over time.

Modelling is the primary method I use for personal knowledge mastery. I provide examples from my own work as well as others. I have learned that trying to shape behaviour within the confines of an onsite workshop or an an online community is a futile effort. It is up to each participant to decide to make a personal journey to mastery. External incentives such as badges, gamification, or edutainment will not help. However, examples from peers can be powerful motivators, which is why I always enlist a cohort to learn together and share as they go. But the major challenge for objective-obsessed organizations and individuals is that this type of teaching and learning takes time.

Our industrial society is coming 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 digitally networked world, modelling how to learn is a better strategy than shaping on a predefined curriculum.

* I live on the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples (currently Sackville, NB). This territory is covered by the ‘Treaties of Peace and Friendship’ which Wolastoqiyik and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.

4 Responses to ““modelling is the best way to teach””

  1. Bill Ryan

    Good post and I think these are among the reasons the competency-based education (CBE) model is growing so quickly in the US EDU’s. A challenge is changing the regulatory world they live within that still measures/accredits by defined curriculum an defined seat time but the shift to learning measured by demonstration of skills (modeling behavior) and not time is making its way back.

  2. Mushtaq

    I agree with Harold here. Modelling is not an option anymore. It is an imperative.
    My experience has been that I find most eLearning and Face-to-face happening the first or second levels (or bottom rungs) of the famous Bloom’s taxonomy. In fact, inline with Bill Ryan, shaping is happening all the way up to the Masters courses in the University. True learning happens on the job.

  3. shobana

    Amazing post Harold. Trying to shape behaviour within the confines of an onsite workshop or an online community is a not a 100% futile effort. I agree that it is up to each participant to decide to make a personal journey to mastery. However, the most important thing is to balance between modelling and shaping behavior. Also, just like external and internal motivation, external and internal incentives need to be balanced depending on the learning context.


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