A Different Kind of Model

One of Vygotsky’s central tenets was that the learner’s mind develops by initially observing a more capable adult or peer engage with a topic or an activity, then acting out the modelled behaviour as a type of practice, before being able to internalise the behaviour and use it automatically, independently. Each model forms a schema on the given topic, a sort of rule book on how to think when presented with the topic in future experiences. Cognitive load theory suggests that engaging in learning with anything less than a well developed schema on a given topic is going to result in extremely inefficient learning behaviours, and so adding significant weight to the importance of modelling.

Does the same pedagogy apply to the presentation of role models to students? I think it has always been seen as an incontrovertibly positive thing to do, but why? Are students likely to internalise the behaviours of the role model and emulate their actions as a matter of course? Or are we wasting our time in such endeavour, ostensibly inspiring but actually engaging in platitudes because the model, usually someone of impeccable morality or sense of justice, is either so far removed from the students’ level of emotional capability as to render them a novice by comparison and thus a source of cognitive overload, or someone who students simply don’t attend to because they have no interest in that context?

It is the second point that I want to discuss here. Often, the lack of connection is understandable. Take for example the presentation to students of the newspaper article above about a young Jacinda Ardern. If you are like me, as soon as I read it I immediately thought it would be great to show students. But why would anyone under 20 be interested in it? Most students would have about a hundredth of the admiration or respect that you or I would have for her. The current Jacinda Ardern is a person so far removed from their life in a multitude of ways that our hope for any inspiration would be romantic at best. Students have enough of their own world to worry about before trying to connect to a politician. But the reason why it is worth presenting students with such models and discussing their virtues is because it is setting up and initiating a schema that eventually will be triggered at some later stage.

Clever teachers, perennially aware of the importance of retrieval practice but also of schema theory, always link aspects of what has been previously taught with new content, both in terms of topic knowledge as well as affective knowledge. The introduction of the virtues of role models along the journey of a knowledge curriculum would hardly remain in isolation, with most curriculums providing ample opportunities to return to the essence and reason of their introduction. It is the repeated exposure that increases the likelihood of attention, and thus transference to the long term memory. But maybe more poignantly, such role models usually become or are iconic, if only for their presence in social media, and when we discuss them in lessons or lectures we help students establish in their schema the link between the image/association they’ve likely seen/heard of in some way, and why they actually matter.

The individual presentation of role models may seem pointless at the time, but by interweaving the notion throughout a curriculum and relying on them inevitably popping up in cultural literacy we are actually helping create a future reference for students of how to behave in and improve a society.

I’m Paul Moss. I was an English teacher, now a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too

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