Ask Steve Barkley: Teacher Modeling

Back by popular demand, Steve Barkley is back to answer your questions. This week we’re focusing on the instructional strategy of modeling.


Lab technician showing excited kids a science experimentQ: I’m a 4th grade science teacher in a public school located in Rochester, NY. I find myself using the instructional strategy of modeling many times throughout the course of the school year. Sometimes I find my students riveted to what I am showing them. Other times, they look like they’re antsy and want to try it themselves. Do you have any best practices you can share about modeling?

A: Great question! Modeling can be a very effective instructional strategy especially in science class where experiments are fun, engaging, and provide terrific learning opportunities. In my years observing students’ learning production behaviors, I frequently find students who are unclear as to what the expected learning behaviors are. They know what work is supposed to get done, but from a lack of modeling they don’t know what the learning behaviors should look like. On the other hand, I might find a teacher modeling too much! The teacher might go through three or four examples when most students were ready to practice after the first demonstration. And there are other times where I believe that students could have uncovered the expected learning without any teacher modeling at all.

What is teacher modeling?

Modeling is a natural teaching process which we all experienced in those early lessons of learning to tie a shoe, setting the table, or using utensils at meals. Modeling provides the learner with a picture of the process leading to a successful outcome. Research suggests that effective modeling helps to:

  • Communicate the importance of what is being taught.
  • Decrease student errors.
  • Build student confidence with early indicators of success.

Modeling Best Practices

  1. When modeling, make sure to describe the skill or strategy that is being taught. It is valuable to address a “compelling why” as to the importance of this skill or strategy to the students’ future success. Frequently, modeling is present in what I describe as just in time learning; meaning that in a very short time the student will be asked to begin attempting to implement what is being modeled.
  2. Break the whole task into easily digestible parts. Teachers should break more complex strategies into learnable components based on the students’ previous experience. While the teacher models visually (students watching each step), an auditory component is usually present as the teacher explains what the student is seeing. At times the students may be close enough or have elements in their hands that add a kinesthetic/tactual component. The teacher can be asking students to explain or highlight what they are observing checking that the important issues are being noted.
  3. Think-a-loud. This strategy is often built into modeling, allowing the teacher to explain the mental process behind decision making that is occurring during the model. You can model, “questions I ask myself” at certain points, before proceeding. You might want to record those questions as a reference for students when they reach that point in their application.
  4. Use modeling in an I do, We do, You do format. You may model some examples using the steps shared above. Then students begin practicing with the teacher guiding the process through the steps as the teacher checks for understanding. At this point some students can be modeling for others. Then students begin to practice independently. This process is referred to as gradual release.

An Example of Modeling in My Life

I was recently instructed by an art teacher who used a very effective modeling process. Joining a group with my daughter, son-in-law, 8-year-old grandson, and 12-year-old granddaughter, I set out to complete an underwater painting of a fish. The instructor began by showing us a completed picture to illustrate a version of the product we would produce. She next demonstrated how to set the background for underwater and how different choices could be made to gain various shades. As we implemented that step, she looked over our shoulders, encouraging and answering questions. At times nudging us to go beyond our initial strokes. This process was repeated through about ten sections to the finished work.

I am labeling her instruction as highly effective because it was the first piece of my artwork to be exhibited in about 60 years. My granddaughter commented several times in the process, “OMG Pop-pop, that is really good. “She was totally surprised having never seen me produce a recognizable sketch of anything. My grandson was proud of his finished piece and asked if he could display it on the teacher’s easel for all to see.

When modeling, keep these things in mind.

  • Modeling could limit thinking. My art instructor encouraged us to implement our own elements, but being new to the process I know my confidence increased when I stayed very close to her model. I can ponder how she would instruct me differently if I continued learning with her.
  • Modeling could hold back the more able. The step-by-step modeling on this painting did require waiting for the next step to be modeled. In a classroom, might I model at different degrees of difficulty and allow students to decide the model to use? Can modeling be an option that some students choose, and others don’t. How might you differentiate as students start providing the modeling?
  • Modeling could foster a dependency culture. There are students who want each step modeled to guarantee “no mistakes” in the best cases, modeling should lead to increased student desire to venture out. Apply and experiment with a new learning in a new way.
  • Modeling can take the place of deep learning. Following the modeling, a student might create a finished product without the depth of understanding that is being sought. Continually build for depth and breadth.

Final Thoughts

Decide what needs to be in place to best impact student learning. What needs to happen before, during, and after modeling? How should it be differentiated to pull, push, and nudge continuous growth?

If you have questions for Steve, please submit them by commenting below! We’d love to feature your questions on our blog.


Steve BarkleyAbout Steve Barkley

For over three decades, Steve Barkley has served as an educational consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. A prolific published author, his weekly blog, Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud, has evolved into a go-to resource for teachers and administrators all over the world.

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