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On Modeling (part 1)

July 28, 2012

Modeling (This Week In Lazy Titles)

I find it difficult to remember how I read and wrote before I went to college. I’d like to believe I always read closely and carefully, and perhaps I did; my early education made a fetish of massive quantities of difficult reading, and my reading comprehension was tested weekly. Nevertheless, something did change when I came to college; I did read more closely, more explicitly, forming a carefully-constructed mental map of the text as I read. My writing changed much more. I learned to plan; I learned to edit. Eventually, kicking and screaming, I learned to revise. But I learned by trial and error across half a dozen classes, and I never fully got the process under conscious control until I started teaching. But I could have saved a year or two of struggling if I had had a chance to watch an expert work.

The technique is called modeling, and it’s pretty simple: the expert sets a concrete skill problem that the novice can comprehend, then solves the problem in realtime, carefully explaining every action taken along the way. Does the novice need to learn how to write a process manual (and develop all the skills that make it possible)? The expert writes a process manual in class, breaking the task down into its simplest components, planning them out, and executing one at a time while the novice watches.

Modeling is part of a pedagogical system called cognitive apprenticeship, and it’s worked pretty well for me–but it can be demanding. You can’t model without being an expert; you have to do real work each time; you have to explain yourself at all times. You may run into real difficulty, in which case you’ll have to show your students how an expert gets out of it. You also can’t model effectively unless you have your students’ full attention; otherwise you’ll want to kill yourself. This means they have to be invested in the problem before you show them how to solve it.

An Example (In Other Lazy Title News …)

I’ve tried modeling in several different classes over three semesters, and while I’ve had good results all three times, the best results by far came last fall.

I was teaching a class called Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines at New Jersey City University. The course culminated in an all-or-nothing summative exam known as the WRAP, which is graded by a special committee; the professor can prepare his students, but their final performance belongs to them.

My students lived in fear of the WRAP. It is a short response essay: two hours to read and respond to a short essay (3-4 pages) in two to three double-spaced pages. The bar is fairly low; if students comprehend the text, summarize it fairly, and respond with their own ideas in minimally-competent English prose, they pass.

For the first seven weeks of the semester, my students struggled to make any progress, and I struggled to get through to them. All their training and instincts conspired to make them fail. In search of shortcuts, they tried to respond without reading; they tracked down three or four quotes in the essay and fit them to the nearest cliche; they tried to avoid thinking about the text as much as possible. Confusion reigned. I assigned them long, demanding long essays to read and explicate, but I might as well have told them to sprout horns.

Then I decided to show them exactly how I would tackle the dreaded WRAP.

First, I wrote out a plan: 1. Read, summarizing each paragraph carefully. 2. Summarize the reading. 3. Write my own response. 4. Write introduction, transitions, and conclusion. 5. Reread what I have written. 6. Edit. 7. Reread what I have written again.

“Too many steps,” they said. “We’d never finish in time.”

“You’re trying to do everything at once,” I said. “It slows you down and makes you inefficient. Watch.”

Using a PowerPoint projector and a sample test form, I parsed carefully through a cut-down Peter Singer essay, glossing and annotating it, constructing a simple summary. His argument was straightforward: just as a bystander would have a duty to save a drowning child even if it would ruin his brand-new shoes, so we all have a duty to save people dying around the world even if it means donating every spare dollar: proximity means nothing; only an infantile morality would excuse us from helping people we cannot see.

It was a five-minute task, but I tried to stretch this part out as long as possible, giving them plenty of time to follow along. In the end I took thirty minutes, constantly doubling back and explaining each paragraph, constantly writing notes. I wrote a short but detailed summary of his whole argument.

“But you haven’t written your response yet,” they said.

“That’s the idea.”

I wrote a single sentence summarizing the short essay, a single sentence setting forth my own views on the subject, a few words explaining how my views related to Singer’s. I turned that into the hinge between summary and response, explained and supported my response, and within fifteen minutes I had a serviceable draft. Then I wrote introduction and conclusion and had them read it aloud. Where they were confused, I edited for clarity. We read it through again, and then I had them grade it using the standard WRAP rubric. There was still an hour on the clock.

Obviously they didn’t have the skills to do what I had done on their own, but they saw which skills I used and how they fit together. That class was a turning point. The rest of the semester, I modeled everything, and any time I did something that my students considered magic–or “talent” or “genius”–I took it apart for them.

And So? (Revenge of the Lazy Title)

Obviously I think that more in-class modeling could help future Josies avoid trial-and-error learning. I think it would be nice to see expert writers actually doing their thing–to see behind the curtain, etc. Since the qualifying skill for college comp teachers is writing skill rather than pedagogical training, it’s probably much more impressive to display a real skill than to seek out clever ways of tricking students into learning. If they need to learn it badly enough (separate issue: how to show them they need to learn it!), they could do worse than watch an expert work.

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