I wasn’t sure whether the title of this blog should be ‘Sable’s Penguin’ or ‘Finn’s Penguin’. And if you’ve seen Austin’s Butterfly, you’ll know what’s coming, sort of. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look.
Austin could see what he needed to do – to draw an accurate representation of a swallowtail butterfly – but he lacked the scientific skills of being observant and looking carefully, as well as the fine-motor skills to readily draw what was in front of him, rather than the simplistic idea, already in his head, of what a butterfly looked like. Through several drafts and supportive peers who gave him feedback during the process, he was encouraged to develop these skills – and the comparison between the first and final draft is kinda breath-taking.
Austin, as far as I can tell, didn’t have somebody modelling how to draw the butterfly; there wasn’t an artist on hand, saying, ‘Watch what I do and notice how I’m drawing the lines…now you have a go.’ His peer-group didn’t attempt to show him how to do it with their pencils; they simply gave him verbal feedback. And I get it – modelling how to draw the butterfly might have taken something away from the individuality of Austin’s process.
I remember speaking to an Early Years teacher a while ago – she said that she was trained not to model (how to draw a frog). She would, instead, ask questions like, ‘What shape are the eyes? She might discuss its colour or prompt observations but she wouldn’t model how to do it. The children wouldn’t see this bit. She summed it up with something along the lines of, ‘It might end up looking a bit rubbish, but it’s their rubbish.’ And that maybe says a lot in itself.
I get it – I think – but I wanted to look at this from a different angle – and this is where Sable, and her penguin come in. Sable is eighteen and she likes to draw – she’s good at it. Finn is six and he likes to draw. And he’s pretty good at it, too. So, with paper all over the place and the beautifully illustrated book ‘Animalium‘ open on the table, on the penguin page, they each drew one, and Sable’s is the one above.
And as we pottered about around them, I began to think about the impact, that drawing with somebody else (who is better at it), can have. But it can’t just be anybody. Finn looks up to Sable – he likes being with her – she’s not his sister but could have easily filled that role – somebody more able, somebody kind but who willingly pointed out where he was going wrong, somebody who demonstrated how to do it better – who didn’t just talk about it – but who also did it with him.
For Finn, simply having the Animalium book open in front of him, wouldn’t have been the same. I could have looked over his shoulder occasionally and said something like, ‘Look at his beak, is it long enough?’ but, having Sable there with him, drawing beautifully, made him want to be better. It was a relationship thing.
These are Finn’s penguins. Sable taught him, in particular, how to shade.
I see it myself when I model how to do something for my seven and eight year olds. The moment I sit down with them, and they gather round and watch, it somehow becomes a better situation. Giving it a go myself helps them, I think, to see me as (usually) confident to demonstrate – I make mistakes, I might have to rub something out – and they hear me reflect on what I’ve done – and watch me try again – they comment – and I believe that all of that helps them to feel more confident in doing it themselves.
An example of this is a recent Science lesson in which we were thinking about being observant. I wanted them to attempt to draw accurate representations of flowers before we got into the nitty-gritty of carpels and stamens. I modelled one – I could almost hear them thinking, ‘Well, if Mrs Young can do it – so can I.’. I think, too, that we may have reached our goal a little quicker and certainly more confidently than if I had just talked to them regularly. Here are some of their flowers.
Having an exemplar already prepared is one thing – and reflecting regularly is vital -great – but if you can actually model how to do it at some point too, or at least have a go, I think that’s valuable – for so many other, maybe more important reasons.
It’s a bit like trying to coach somebody how to throw a ball – you’d stand next to them, or behind them, you’d guide their arm into the correct position – and guide them slowly through the motion, explaining as you go – you’d practise it a few times slowly, they’d watch you – they’d get an idea of your movements, how you approach the throw, they’d get a feel for the speed you were traveling and hear the sound of your footsteps, feel your effort, you’d tell them that right at the last minute, it’s all in the wrist and you’d model it. You wouldn’t stand next to them with a photo of somebody about to throw a ball and ask them what they noticed about the shape of the arm – well you might, but it wouldn’t achieve the same result – by not modeling it, they’d lose a heap of other sensory information. And then, you wouldn’t justify it by thinking, ‘Doesn’t matter if it happens to end up as a naff throw – it’s their naff throw.’, would you?
And to be ever so slightly controversial, just had a fleeting thought that perhaps, the idea of ‘not modelling’ might, at least in part, come from our own lack of confidence or perception of inability in the very skills we’re trying to teach our children. Is it possible that somewhere in the historical depths of national policy making and curriculum delivery, somebody (who couldn’t perhaps draw a frog) said, ‘I know! Let’s get rid of the idea that we should actually teach our children how to do something by modelling it – instead, let’s just all talk about it – while we look at a picture. That’s still good teaching, right?’
And I’m not saying it isn’t – after all, Austin’s butterfly was so good it could have almost flown off the page – and they all learned how to reflect, compare, give and take feedback – all great stuff. For Austin, it worked – eventually. But Austin’s butterfly is recognised as a good example of this approach because it turned out to be a good example – but what about Pauline’s butterfly, or Ahmed’s?
We learn so much from copying each other – it gives us confidence if we watch somebody else do it first – it can give us a real sense of aspiration – as in Finn and Sable’s case. If the objective is to draw an accurate representation of a frog, or a penguin, or a flower or whatever – why would you not model how to do it?
And that’s why I called this blog ‘Sable’s Penguin’.