Learning by example

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Using exemplar responses is not best practice, instead teachers should be demonstrating positive learning behaviours

It is often said that ‘everything old is new again’. As experience in life builds, it is common to see cycles and patterns. Education practices that have been shown to be unsound are again coming to the fore.

Students need to acquire knowledge and skills, obtain guidance and support, and be engaged and active as participants in learning. In this, the need to learn through modelling is apparent.

It should seem obvious that the need to model starts with demonstrating what should be done: show a process to follow when solving problems, a structure for addressing a problem and creating a solution.

Exemplar Response.Indian Link

In many instances, this is being done. However, there are some practices being observed that provide an example of how learning should not be done.

Consider the following method that is becoming increasingly common amongst educators. The practice involves taking the response from the best student and using it to show others how to write when structuring a response to a problem or question. The use of so-called ‘exemplars’ has arisen in part because the registering authorities require models of such responses to be kept. The authorities actually require that teachers keep responses that are typical of the best (an ‘exemplary’ response), the ‘average’ and also the lowest levels of performance. These scripts are then used to judge whether standards have been correctly adhered to.

From an accountability point-of-view, the keeping of a range of so called ‘typical’ responses is appropriate. However, students and teachers are increasingly using the work of the best students to ‘model’ excellent responses. This burgeoning use of the exemplar or ‘model answer’ is, in my view, flawed for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the use of model responses from a students’ peers encourages competition between peers rather than collaboration. Rather than viewing the subject content, concepts and skills, the object of mastery or focus becomes closing gaps, beating and comparing among others in the cohort.

Exemplar Response.Indian Link

A second issue is who actually sets the modelled standard. Teachers pride themselves on professionalism, yet in using exemplars, they outsource the professional standard to the students and their cohort. This in itself undermines both the teacher and the very idea of professional standards. Moreover, in some schools it creates a sense that the best achiever must be a high achiever when this is not necessarily the case.

A third issue is far more problematic from the perspective of plagiarism. An exemplar that is created by a student’s peer may lead to others copying or quoting from it. This actually takes away from the originality of the creator’s work and even potentially calls into question whether all parodied works or derived works are ‘ghost written’ (vicariously) or even plagiarised. This possibility of this arising points to serious additional flaws with the disseminating of exemplars among peers within a cohort.

Apart from these serious deficiencies, published exemplars and marking guidelines are also sometimes incorrect. Indeed, even aspects of a syllabus can be ambiguous, outdated and poorly worded. This means that teachers need to interpret these documents and, to the best of their ability, clarify intent, meaning and concepts when there are multiple possible interpretations.

Exemplar Response.Indian Link

A colleague reported recently that a ‘precocious’ student sought the best model responses because he was driven to succeed. I wondered whether he trusted his teachers. I also wondered whether his own critique that a response getting 18/20 was really not a good enough exemplar meant he did not need a cohort’s response but rather, a professional’s opinion. That is, the best that his own teachers would accept.

The boy’s response points to further issues. What if a teacher is unsure of a standard, or is unclear about the level at which to place expectations? There are, of course, teachers who do not know the answer to every question posed by every student to a standard that would be deemed exemplary. In this case, a teacher can spend time researching, drafting and fully answering questions as they arise even if this cannot be done always without notice.

In modelling a willingness to learn themselves, the teacher is setting an example. I had a parent recently show me the work she had created for her child to complement the homework given by school. This parent is particularly ambitious for her child and was explicit about her need for her child to get into the best university globally. Even in primary school, she is giving her child work of an inordinately difficult standard. I asked the mother for her answers to the problems she had set. She could not provide answers. Here, the role modelling was totally inappropriate and unreasonable.

Learning by example has many facets, some subtle and some not – but authenticity is a starting point.

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Mohan was a high school teacher for 26 years. He is currently Academic Leader at Potentia Tutoring, a lecturer in education at university and author. He is also CEO of the Australian and Global tutoring associations.
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