‘Modelling helps pupils understand new processes and ideas; good models make abstract ideas concrete and accessible.’
ITT core content framework and Early career framework, DfE, 2019
Topics on this page:
- What is modelling?
- How to use modelling
- Worked examples
- Modelling a written outcome
- Different forms of modelling
- Visualisers for modelling
- Case studies using modelling and demonstration
What is modelling?
Modelling is a strategy where the teacher demonstrates (or models) a process and the students observe how it works. They see what the teacher does rather than following instructions or finding their way through a task themselves.
There are times when it is important for students to work things out for themselves, but when they have the process modelled for them it means they can concentrate on the really important learning and avoid cognitive overload.
Modelling has a number of forms. It can:
- Demonstrate a process step by step, such as the hydrological cycle
- Reveal to students how a teacher is thinking as they carry out a process such as interpreting a photograph
- Provide an example for students to emulate, such as constructing a good answer to an examination question.
How to use modelling
Modelling is a sub-set of explicit teaching so the same principles apply: relate the new ideas to prior learning; use small steps to introduce the modelling; continually check for student understanding; provide opportunities for students to clarify. Modelling demonstrates a process visually and can be slowed down or repeated if it is difficult for students to grasp.
Effective modelling supports students to know both how and what to do. You need to follow these steps:
- Prepare: know in advance what you will say or ‘think out loud’. It is difficult to ad lib when you model unless you are an experienced teacher.
- Share: modelling is about sharing your thoughts with students and talking them through your actions and mental processes.
- Point out mistakes: show students’ possible pitfalls, any problems they are likely to meet and provide strategies to overcome them.
- Ask questions: ask questions as you go along – what am I doing, why am I doing this?
When you are modelling to students, clarity of explanation is very important. Pace your explanation carefully so that students can follow the modelling; at the same time you do not want them to become bored and lose focus. You have to get the balance right to give them the procedural knowledge to carry out what they have to do when they try it for themselves.
Thinking aloud is where the teacher narrates their thoughts so that they make it explicit to students how geographers think. The narration should focus on the key objectives the teacher wants to convey or the focus will be lost in superfluous language. Consider what students will need when working independently and draw their attention to links with prior knowledge. Thinking aloud can be a good way to expose potential pitfalls and explain how to avoid them.
Break down the process by creating small steps. It is particularly important that you make sure the students can see the connections between steps. It can help students to recall your ‘model’ if you name the steps or use mnemonics or create a story to help students to remember them.
Do not expect students to listen or watch for extended periods of time without interaction. You want them to ask questions if they are unsure about what has been modelled. You want them to use the process and accept that making mistakes is part of the learning.
During the narration the teacher should ask themselves the questions that students should consider when they carry out the process. But listening to the teacher’s thoughts and watching them perform a task does not mean they can do it themselves. You might have to repeat modelling several times, especially if there are many steps for students to take in.
In geography, teachers used worked examples to ‘model’ or demonstrate a process to learners. A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task and should make clear the expected outcome. This may include diagrams with detailed instructions to fully illustrate each step in the process, e.g. a worked example of creating a climate graph (see Atherton, 2006) or drawing a cross section.
It is often used to show how students can arrive at a final product, for example to produce an annotated sketch map or a field sketch. The aim is for the students to gain as close an understanding as possible of what their teacher sees as a high-quality model. It helps students understand the process if they can see what a good outcome looks like.
Worked examples should be planned in advance so you can be sure to explain each step systematically and clearly. The teacher must identify the key learning points to draw from the worked example and focus students on these during the demonstration. The teacher narrates the steps and thought processes. They may devise ways to support students to remember the steps – such as a mnemonic (such as Never Eat Shredded Wheat for compass points). If the board is used to show the worked example, it should be left for students to refer back to as they practise.
Worked examples are thought to be effective because they reduce cognitive load, allowing students to focus on one step of a problem at a time without ‘getting lost’ in the detail. The EEF believes that using worked examples can have a positive impact on learning outcomes, but all the research studies they draw evidence from are in maths and science.
An important element of modelling is to illustrate for students the standard they are aiming for and to establish high expectations in terms of both skills and knowledge. For example, when modelling how to an essay or create an isoline map, the end product should be of high quality.
Teachers often use modelling to show students how to finish some excellent work, such as an examination answer. The teacher thinks aloud as they decode the question, shares thoughts, edits mistakes and works on the model answer, taking ideas and questions from the class. It is important that a model answer is explained and unpicked and students are shown how the criteria are met to make it into a high quality answer. Students need to understand the criteria that makes this such a strong piece of work.
In the I-stage the teacher discusses the question and demonstrates by thinking aloud how to analyse the wording of the question and explains what the allocation of marks indicate for a successful answer.
The We-stage involves collaboration between the teacher and students as they work through a possible answer. The teacher might use some form of interactive display to build up the answer live on screen, using dialogue and questioning to involve the students in compiling the answer together, improving the language and explanations. The students get a sense of how to build an exam answer.
The You–stage involves students working in pairs to answer a similar question. Their outcomes can be reviewed as a class and maybe remodelled.
Different forms of modelling
Modelling is useful for making abstract ideas concrete and accessible. In the geography classroom the teacher is the ‘expert’ and they make their thinking explicit to the students as they go through the process. Modelling gives the teacher the opportunity to set expectations high and make explicit to students the standard that they want to see achieved.
Modelling can involve props such as physical objects that students can touch and move to help to support learning. This can be in the form of hardware models. These are often powerful tools to help teachers to model physical processes in geography and support students to engage with ideas about how a process operates. As Tom Inman explains,
‘To view processes in operation in three-dimensions generally involves making small-scale physical models. An example often found in the geography classroom is a home-made wave tank used for investigating coastal processes and the impact of coastal management. Simulations of this kind allow the collapsing to timescales from thousands of years into minutes or seconds, thus enabling students to conceptualise mechanisms that link form and process.’ (from Balderstone, D. (2006) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: Geographical Association)
Reed Reesink (2022) who uses physical models in the classroom and shares his expertise with a homemade sandbox to teach rivers at GCSE.
Successful modelling involves you showing students how you work as a geographer. For example, they will learn how to annotate a map by watching you do it and listen to you talk them through the process. Geography is full of activities that benefit from modelling, from extended writing to drawing a cross-section or using fieldwork equipment (see Holdich, 1998). Broad (2006) shows how modelling helps students to understand new ideas and processes. It is a particularly useful approach when students encounter a new technique, for example creating a concept map (see O’Brien, 2002).
Modelling encourages students to use metacognitive thinking. This is particularly the case where teachers ‘think aloud’ and analyse with students the difficult parts of a process and encourage them to do the same.
Visualisers for modelling
A visualiser is any device that provides a projected image for the whole class to see and this can assist modelling.
- You can construct some geographical writing or a model examination answer and provide a running commentary to share your thinking with the whole class and include their ideas.
- You can build up a spider diagram or annotate a map stage by stage, incorporating students’ contributions and adding labels or highlighting key details as they are discussed.
- You can demonstrate how to construct graphs that geographers use such as climate graphs (see Atherton, 2006) and population pyramids.
A visualiser is useful to share completed examples of student work of good quality; this helps to set high expectations.
- Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 178.
- Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Crown House Publishing, chapter 3.
- Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher. Routledge.
- Reesink, A. (2022) ‘Using a physical experiment to teach river systems’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Rogers, D. (2017) 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons. Bloomsbury Education Idea 51.
Case studies using modelling and demonstration
There are numerous ways modelling can be used in geography. Look at these references and try out some of these examples when the opportunities arise.
- Hardware models
- Job, D. and Buck, A. (1994) ‘Learning through models in the laboratory’, Teaching Geography, October.
- Demonstrate techniques such as drawing a graph, field sketch or map
- Atherton, R. (2006) ‘Grappling with climate graphs’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This sets out in diagrams the steps the teacher can follow in ‘modelling’ the drawing of the graph and provides scaffolding for students who need support.
- Analyse a picture
- Look at The promise of geography in education for an excellent model of what a geographer can ‘see’ in a photograph. This could be used with older students before asking them to interpret other images in this way.
- Construct a concept map
- O’Brien, J. (2002) ‘Concept mapping in geography’, Teaching Geography, July, which sets out steps for the process of constructing a concept map.
- ‘Model’ an examination answer for a GCSE or A level group
- See Modelling Answers in Geography in which Anthony Bennett explains modelling how to complete an examination question.
- Demonstrate a physical process
- Broad, J. (2006) ‘Glacier velocity and pressure melting points’, Teaching Geography, Autumn for an example of a classroom demonstration of pressure melting points.
- Demonstrate of how to use fieldwork equipment
- Holdich, K. (1998) ‘Using fieldwork equipment’, Teaching Geography, July.