literacy consultant modelling lessons

Why I Don't Model Lessons For Teachers

Nov 12, 2023

My husband and I recently commenced Operation Work-Off-The-Croissants.

Historically, these types of operations were running-based, but due to ongoing issues with my feet and Laurie’s shiny new bionic hip, we’ve had to seek out other forms of exercise this time around.

This means we’ve pulled on our goggles, dusted off our bathers and begun acquainting ourselves with the slow lane.

Although I spent countless hours at the pool as a youngster (I was a springboard diver), besides the Auswim lessons in primary school, I haven’t had any official swimming lessons.

Neither of us particularly enjoys swimming and we were recently discussing the reasons why. We both decided that our lack of knowledge of how to swim effectively was a major factor in our lack of confidence, enjoyment and motivation towards swimming.

We knew we weren’t good at it, but we didn’t know how to improve and that was demotivating for both of us.

Time to fix the problem.


And this is where the connection to teaching comes in…

Laurie wanted to start by watching an expert swim and then work out what to improve by watching them, whereas I wanted a coach to watch us swim and tell us what we needed to improve.

Essentially, Laurie wanted to see a knowledgeable other model effective practice for him, whilst I wanted the knowledgeable other to observe my current practice and provide point-of-need feedback and teaching.

As I was ruminating over these two approaches while swimming laps one day (while also trying to remember to breathe, kick, lift my elbows high out of the water and stay on my side of the lane) it dawned on me that this very situation was replicated in my consulting work in schools.


‘We want you to model a writing lesson for us…’

Inevitably, when literacy leaders first contact me to work in their school, they’ll request for me to model writing lessons for their teachers. “We’ve asked our staff what they want, and they’ve all said they’d love to see you model a lesson.”

Understandably, these teachers want clarity on ‘what a good one looks like’. Just as Laurie wanted with his swimming, these teachers want to see a clear example of the end goal, so they know what they’re aiming for in their own practice.

There are, however, a number of problems with this approach:


1)     You can’t control what people take away from modelling sessions.

When Laurie and I watched videos of the expert swimmer, we didn’t know which part of their style we should be paying attention to.

What would make the biggest difference for our own swimming?

We had to guess at what was lacking in our own style, so we could pay attention to that part of the expert’s modelling. I thought my arms were my biggest problem- I was sure they were in the wrong position when I was breathing, so I carefully watched the expert’s arm position as they modelled. I tried to work out what I needed to apply in my own practice and hoped that that would be the key to unlocking a more efficient style.

Once we signed up to official coaching however, I realized the problem wasn’t with my arms- it was actually my legs that were the real problem! Unbelievably, they weren’t performing the most basic of moves- kicking! This was complete news to me and highlighted the issue with relying on modeling as the first strategy in changing practice- it involves far too much inefficient guesswork.

I’d spent weeks focusing on improving my arms, when the whole entire time my legs were taking a picnic, being dragged through the water without doing an ounce of work.


2)     The expert’s practice can be overwhelming.

When Laurie watched the expert, he didn’t know where to look. There were so many things going on: the legs, the arms, the breathing, the core, the underwater pull, the list went on and on.

The expert swimmer’s style was so far from his own practice, that Laurie became overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. He couldn’t break their style down into bite-sized chunks.

This meant that the next time Laurie went swimming, he tried focusing on improving so many different things at once, that his style actually became less efficient, not more efficient.  


3)     The good learning always happens outside your comfort zone.

Watching someone else do the work is safe and comfortable. You don’t have to risk exposing your own weaknesses or faults. No-one will ever need to know just how awful you (think you) are.

We all know however, that the most effective learning happens when we step outside our comfort zones.

When Laurie and I finally signed up for lessons with a qualified coach, we had to be vulnerable. We had to be ok with letting them see our current practice- gulping water and all. The payoff for stepping outside our comfort zone though, was immediate.

The coach was able to assess our current practice and work out which specific part of our stroke we needed to improve on in order to make the biggest difference. Laurie needed to stretch his arms out more as they entered the water and I clearly needed to start doing something with my legs.


The benefits of observations over modelling

For the reasons outlined above, (plus the obvious issue of me never having met their students- and therefore not knowing their needs) I always let literacy leaders know that it’s not my preference to engage in modelling as my first point of work with a school.

I understand this approach feels less threatening for teachers, but in my experience, it rarely leads to sustained and/or effective change. (Think of me working on my arms, while my legs were the obvious problem).

Instead, I propose teacher observations as my first point of work.


1) It’s more precise

Observing current practice in a school provides me- as it did my swimming coach- with the opportunity to assess the real needs in a school, so I can make just-in-time suggestions about improvements and next steps.

This short circuits all the time-consuming guess work and means I can provide targeted professional learning focused on the aspects of literacy instruction that will make the biggest difference.

Without observing current practice to diagnose needs, the school could end up wasting precious time and resources running PL on effective arm use, while their teachers’ legs unknowingly trail along behind them, unused.


2) It enables empowering feedback

At last week's swimming lesson, my coach said, ‘Wow! You’ve improved so much since you started.’ It felt like a throw away line for the coach, but meant oh so much to me.

It justified all the hard work I’d put into bringing about change: The vulnerability, the repeated failures, the ongoing training.

It let me know that I was making forward progress and -just as the research says- this was incredibly motivating. Success breeds success!  

When I observe teachers in a school, I provide specific feedback and next steps after the observation. I then return to those same teachers at a later point - sometimes the next week, sometimes later in the term- observing them again and providing feedback on their growth.

For some teachers, this is the first time in their entire career they’ve received feedback on their daily work. And, inevitably, they express their gratitude for the clarity and motivation this provides them.

Of course, there’s a period of nervousness for the teacher being observed. They are stepping outside their comfort zone, after all. Time and time again, the teachers involved in this process tell me the short-term discomfort is definitely worth the long-term gain.


(Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean I never model when I work in schools, I just don’t do it before diagnosing needs through observing current practice.)


If you're in a literacy leadership role, I strongly recommend an observation-first approach when leading change. 

As I always say, you need to diagnose before you prescribe. Find out what is going on before you start coming up with solutions. Slow down to speed up.

Once you take the time to pinpoint specific needs and focus on the aspects of teaching that will make the biggest difference, both your staff and students will be the big winners.  

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