What is Modeling Instruction?

So in the last few days I have been speaking with and visiting various people in Phoenix who are involved in Modeling Instruction, a teaching method primarily designed for teaching Physics and Chemistry. Modeling Instruction was developed here by David Hestenes, an academic from Arizona State University over 20 years ago and over 3,000 teachers across the US have attended a modeling workshop and are implementing modeling in their teachers. This week I visited ASU and spoke with Robert Culbertson and Kelli Gamez Warble about Modeling Instruction and the programs the university runs to promote it and educate teachers in the method.

In addition I attended Colleen Megowan’s Cognition and Instruction in STEM class, which is part of ASU’s Model-it graduate program for middle school teachers. As part of this, I learned more about the nature of Modeling Instruction, and as a group we reflected on the idea of models and modeling in the first place.

As I share some of the things I have learned, take note that I am not an expert in Modeling. If any Modelers out there read this and see glaring mistakes or misinterpretations, feel free to correct them in the comments!

So, what is a model?

At Colleen’s class we were asked to write down a definition of the words model and modeling. Model is an ambiguous word as it is used in everyday life (and education) in a range of situations, although it has a very specific meaning within the scope of this educational approach.

Prior to beginning the modeling course many of the participants saw models as a physical thing you build and can touch, such as a model of the solar system or a volcano. Others discuss models and modeling in terms of providing a ‘model answer’ to students or ‘modeling’ on the board how to go about answering a question. These are not ‘models’ in the interpretation of modeling instruction, instead these could be seen as representations of the conceptual model.

My interpretation of the type of ‘model’ we are talking about when we discuss Modeling Instruction is that a model is a conceptual framework for learning. It is a set of ideas and principles which is used to explain a specific (often physical) phenomena. This model often exists as a whole only within the students mind, and various representations (graphs, equations, diagrams, descriptions, ec.) can be used to communicate this model to others, however on their own a single representation does not make up the model itself.

Everyone uses models all the time. You use a model inside your own mind to explain what happens whilst you cook your dinner on the stove, what will happen when you put your foot on the accelerator in your car, or what happens when you light a match. Scientists also develop models, to explain the phenomena observed in their experiments. The problem comes when the models which you have developed in your everyday life do not agree with established scientific models. What happens when your teacher tells you that your model is wrong, do you change it? All too often the answer is no. Although you may learn how to answer the question correctly in Physics class, when you leave the room you will revert to your traditional beliefs about how the world works.

So what’s modeling?

Instead of telling students the ‘correct’ model we expect them to adopt, we need to use a process of modeling to bring out and challenge these beliefs, and to allow students to develop their own conceptual framework to explain the phenomena being investigated. Simply telling them is not enough: we need to get student to independently come up with new models so that they actually retain and believe them.

The process of modeling is an iterative or cyclical process. Models need to be established, explained, tested, and revised continually in order to develop robust models which can explain a range of physical principle.

This is what scientists have been doing for centuries. Indeed, it took millennia for scientists to come up with so-called ‘basic’ concepts such as gravity and Newton’s laws of motion. So why do we expect students to absorb and accept these ideas in merely a few lessons?

So what is Modeling Instruction?

Modeling Instruction is a specific teaching method which utilises these ideas to teach Physics and Chemistry, and it is beginning to be used to teach Biology as well. This method provides a structure for exploring and developing student conceptions about phenomena. Some of the key features of Modeling Instruction (as I currently understand it) are the following:

  1. Student-centred groupwork. Modeling is student-centred, focused on group work and students sharing their ideas with their group and then class. Students usually work in groups of 3-4, and in these groups these must work together and explain ideas to one another to develop some sort of agreement which is later shared with the class. The main role of the teacher is to provide the right materials and questions for them to investigate, and to ask questions of groups of students to probe their thinking. The teacher is not there to provide the ‘right’ answers, students must reach a consensus on this on their own.
  2. Whiteboards. Students use portable group whiteboards to explain their ideas to each other and the class. Groups of students may develop an answer to a question or problem posed by the teacher on their whiteboard, or they may collect and analyse experimental data on the whiteboard.  Their whiteboards usually display a range of representations of their ideas (such as graphs, calculations, motion maps, etc.) rather than just one representation. The nature of a whiteboard and the freedom to erase mistakes frees students from the fear of putting down the wrong thing as students can change their board easily as their understanding develops.
  3. Board meetings. Groups of students share their whiteboard answers in ‘board meetings’, which consist of students sitting in a circle showing and explaining their whiteboards to each other and coming to a collective understanding of the phenomena being explored. During this time the teacher takes a backseat, letting students guide the discussion through their own questioning. This time allows students to develop their own individual understanding, and the whole-class sharing allows groups to question one another and correct each others’ misconceptions.

This process allows students to develop an understanding without being locked down to the ‘right’ answer. With time students become more confident sharing and explaining their ideas and more comfortable with the idea that knowledge and understanding is an ever-changing developmental process rather than a fixed goal.

So what now?

Modeling Instruction appeals to me because it is a semi-structured way of promoting active learning in Physics. Chalk and talk may work for some, but all too often the students do not incorporate the new knowledge into their own belief systems. In addition to agreeing with my own personal beliefs on how students develop understanding, this is also a teaching method which does not need a radical reorganisation of the school system. This only requires the modification of the learning environment within the individual classroom itself, and as a result it could be implemented within most school classrooms in most schools.

I have a number of visits organised to Modeling classrooms over the coming few weeks, so I will look forward to developing a picture of what this method looks like in action and I will share more on this as I do.

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