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The Importance of Demonstration When Learning

Last year I started a yoga practice. And not just any yoga — but hot yoga. If you’ve never tried it, 2020 probably isn’t the time, but if you have — you either love it or hate it.

The second you step into the heated room (often between 93 and 98 degrees F), you begin to sweat. This is before you even start to move. Though it takes some getting used to, it’s kind of cathartic and you feel amazing at the end. I was so committed to becoming part of the yogi community that I not only got a monthly membership, but I also bought a skid-proof mat and a special towel to help from slipping around in all the sweat.

I’d attend classes 2-3 times a week and tried all different ones — some slow, some fast, and some integrated weight lifting.

Now, I’d say I’m a fairly confident person but being in a yoga class with these super flexible people had me feeling a bit off my game. I couldn’t really touch my toes while holding my legs straight and had trouble with some binds. The complicated poses were initially challenging, but I decided that I’d get better if I committed and kept trying. It was slow progress, but I did improve.

Not every class had us doing extreme poses like headstands or side crow. I could stay in crow pose for about 2 seconds. But the side crow looked impossible — I didn’t even want to attempt it.

Demonstration makes all the difference.

Returning to class over and over was helpful because I got to keep working at it. What helped me most — watching each instructor’s technique. They’d show us step-by-step how to get into the pose. I realized that those demonstrations were key. When the instructors didn’t demonstrate (which did happen sometimes) and only told us what to do, I found myself looking around the room to find the most adept yogi so that I could model.

One of Brian Cambourne’s conditions of learning that we teach about is the importance of the demonstration.

These last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to support teachers while teaching on Zoom. I’ve watched some mini-lessons and supported teachers in conferences.

Whether you’re teaching how to do a handstand or adding dialogue into a writing piece, someone who doesn’t yet have the skills will need a demonstration — and they might need to see a few times.

Years ago, when I was a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I went to see my favorite conferring guru, Carl Anderson’s keynote speech. He has published many books and videos around conferring and assessing writers. So much of what I’ve learned has been from him. It was right around the time that Carl was about to publish Strategic Writing Conferences: Smart Conversations that Move Young Writers Forward. This was a resource with DVDs of videos with Carl conferring.

Here’s something he said that stuck with me: “I have watched thousands of teachers confer and I have finally figured out what is missing in their conferences.” The audience was hanging on, waiting to hear what he might say.

”It’s the TEACHING!” 

What?!? I thought to myself. He went on, “Teachers are teaching by mentioning. They’re teaching by telling kids what to do. They need to be teaching by demonstrating and showing examples.” This idea only cemented for me the work I was developing around writing toolkits. I was already showing teachers that to teach well, you need to have some tools — mainly your own writing, some student writing, and a great mentor text. With these tools at your fingertips, you’re more prepared to teach a young writer.

This year, one of my amazing schools in Rowland Unified School District decided to study his newest book, A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences. What a smart move! This book has more than just great tips for conferring but also many videos you can watch of kids in every grade level with every different genre. It’s an incredible resource and has opened up so many great conversations for us during professional development.

When I went on to coach these teachers at their conferences last week, I often found myself saying to teachers, “Do you have a piece of your own writing where you can show them how to do that? Could you demonstrate it for them with your writing?” It reminded me once again how genuinely crucial demonstration is as a teaching method.

As teachers, we usually DO model when we give mini-lessons, but we tend to be a little bit unprepared when it comes to conferences or small groups.

You don’t need a lot, but having just these few tools will help you to feel so much more confident in your teaching:

  1. Your own writing
  2. Some student writing (with the name blocked out if you think it could be an issue)
  3. A great mentor text (you really only need one)

If you’re completely new to this concept, start with your writing. Model every single day during the mini-lesson and keep all that writing with you in a digital or physical notebook (grades 3-8) or in a folder (grades K-2).

If you found this article helpful, please share it with a fellow educator. And then check these out:

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Launching the Year w/ Virtual Instruction in READING
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