Purposeful Modeling

Teaching Through Demonstration

A Personal Story

When I was 7 years old, I started training in a classical Indian dance style.

At the age of 18, I began to diversify, first studying a highly stylized theater, then another classical dance, followed by an ancient martial art – all from India.  These arts reach back more than 2,000 years. The way I was taught was probably similar to the way they were taught for generations: through demonstration and observation.

What was similar about all my teachers in these various art forms is that spoken explanation and correction were minimal. The more traditional the teacher, the less he or she spoke.

Corrections were sometimes made by physically moving my body into position or by touching a point on the body to correct it through reflex.

The teacher would also demonstrate – usually without speaking. Students would learn by watching their teacher, but there also was a lot to be learnt by watching senior students in the class.

When I was studying stylized theater in India, I along with other students would travel from village to village watching our teacher perform. Then, when we were ready, we would also perform, taking small roles at first in the theater ensemble.

In this way, knowledge of the art was absorbed by the students in the context of authentic experiences.

I spent many years in India studying.

Coming from a Western background where my school education was highly compartmentalized, this learning felt deep and satisfying.


The Didactic Approach

When you imagine a typical teacher, you imagine a person lecturing, discussing, questioning – in other words talking. Talking is probably the main action of a school teacher.

While talking is one important way to convey information and stimulate ideas, it has become more or less the predominant way to teach in modern societies, even to the very youngest students.

A Fresh Look at Old-Styles

But, there are teaching philosophies that still exist in early childhood education where teaching through silence is honored and practiced.


Many Montessori educators teach in this way.  For example, when working with a child, the teacher demonstrates putting circles in order from large to small by taking two at a time, comparing them, placing the larger one in a special place, picking up the next one, comparing, and so forth – all done in silence.

Or a teacher may model feeling the shape of an object without speaking.




Another facet in Montessori that is similar to the traditional teaching context is peer mentoring.  This is facilitated by multi-age classrooms where older children are encouraged to guide the younger children in appropriate ways to use the Montessori manipulatives.

Despite the similarities, Montessori education does not incorporate purposeful modeling in a purely traditional mode. This is because in Montessori, the lesson is taken out of context.  Students are not sizing blocks (or sticks) to build a needed structure, for example. They are sizing them purely to develop a cognitive skill in isolation.

And yet, there is something special about demonstrating without too much verbal distraction.

Can children concentrate better if they can focus exclusively on the visual and tactile stimulation, and not be distracted by additional verbal stimulation? Does the learning go deeper? I wonder.

Comments from Readers on This Post

As a Montessori guide, I understand and relate to the idea of teaching children in silence. I think, too often, teachers use their voices to teach rather than teaching through modeling.   

                ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

I feel that I have always been taught to explain using words so I don’t recall a time where I haven’t used words to explain my actions.      

                  ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

“I like the idea that sometimes children can get distracted or confused with too much talking and would like to see if purposeful modeling can make a difference.    

                   ~ graduate student and early childhood educator

A Historical View

Purposeful modeling was a more direct way that children were taught in traditional societies.  This along with two other key ways of transmitting knowledge were part of systems of education since ancient times.

For a brief overview of traditional education: 

Your Turn

What do you know about purposeful modeling? Think about your experiences in the classroom, at home, or in your childhood.

Post your thoughts in the Comments box below.

One Reply to “Purposeful Modeling”

  1. I have limited knowledge about purposeful modeling related to research context. This approach to educating makes sense as people’s strengths differ in regards to taking in information to learn. Perhaps providing information to be processed via more than one sensory system (touch and vision) can capture more learners compared to auditory delivery only. We know in normal development the sense of touch and vision are foundational for learning and language (spoken and comprehension) develop later.

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