Noise and the Art of Mirror-Modelling

In Lockdown 1, I subscribed to Beachbody UK. Beachbody is a subscription service which streams exercise classes to your TV. If you have ever completed a Shaun T workout, then you’ll know the drill: a short demo, then you join in for one slower round, then there’s a one-minute workout before the next move.

In a Beachbody class last year, I noticed something peculiar about the way they give instructions: it’s all delivered in mirror-image. If the instruction is to kick your right leg, then the instructor kicks a left leg. The instructor tells you to stretch your left arm, while she and the team diligently stretch a right arm. They present you with a mirror of exactly what you need to do. 

It irritated me when I first noticed it – do they think we don’t know our left from right? However, an attempt to subvert it made me flounder. We naturally follow what is exactly in front of us.

I have been prompted to think about why the Beachbody team do this and what it can tell us about our own modelling.

We know that learning through examples is effective; teachers have been demonstrating this for centuries. Whether it is letter formation in EYFS, or other complex cognitive skills such as analytical writing or data analysis in older years, modelling is a crucial part of effective classroom practice. Sweller shows that learning via worked examples is effective because of the reduction of random processes and components.

The Borrowing Principle

Sweller describes the Borrowing Principle, which explains how our ‘knowledge held in long-term memory is borrowed from the long-term memory of other individuals by imitating what they do, listening to what they say or reading what they have written.’ We combine our own understanding of the world with this new knowledge to form an entirely new construction. Sweller describes the ‘inevitable random components’ in this process: ‘When attempting to assimilate new information we usually engage in a quest for meaning and that process requires us to randomly assign meaning to new information and test whether that meaning is viable.’

As teachers, in the process of modelling in order to enable this borrowing to take place, we need to be crystal clear in our explanations. The clarity of what and how we communicate when we model is crucial if our students are to be able to replicate our skills and processes, and make them their own.

Faultless Communication

We can aspire to faultless communication in our modelling. We can aspire for a reduction in the noise which interferes with how our students can process, retain, replicate and become skilled and independent in their own application of the cognitive skills we are teaching.


I think of disruptions to the learning process as noise. These disruptions come in the form of inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the quality of our explanations. Noise results in the incorrect selection of material, poor phrasing, fractured and incohesive structures and a misunderstanding of tasks and purpose. This occurs because our students are having to plug gaps where we have made assumptions about what they know. Our models sometimes leap from one point in the process to another, and a step is completed silently or without clear explanation. Their gap-fillers are often erroneous, because we are forcing them to guess about what to include. This absence of explanation is, in itself, a distraction.

The teacher’s cognitive process needs to be made explicit.

Some teachers joke that year 7 students, in September, always ask what to do when they reach the bottom of a page. New scenarios and new learning seem to leave them feeling genuinely uncertain and insecure. The same applies to learning new processes and skills at a higher level, but this doesn’t always manifest itself in anything as blunt as the new students’ questions about turning a page. What seems to happen is that students attempt to piece together the missing information. Inevitably, the dots don’t always join up.

Every step of the model should be made obvious. There are areas of classroom practice which are relatively mechanical and don’t need to be spelled out, yet we make these explicit; we do not hesitate to ask our students to ‘open your books please,’ yet when it comes to elements of live modelling, as experts, we sometimes neglect to spell out and break down some of the more complex processes.

It can work well to ‘think aloud’ for the entire model. This can include:

Physical processes:

  • ‘I am now returning to the tab where I have a copy of the whole play open. This is the link I sent you in the chat.’
  • ‘I know that Tubal tells Shylock that Jessica has swapped his turquoise ring for a monkey. I can’t remember the exact line. I am going to use the control-F function to search for the word ‘monkey.’

Phrasing choices:

  • ‘I am starting this sentence with the phrase ‘on initial reception…’ because I am describing what the audience may think when they first encounter Elizabeth Proctor’
  • ‘I have used speech marks around the word ‘brighter’ here, as I am using Priestley’s own words. This is not my description of the set, it’s his, so it goes in speech marks.’

The modelling of the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’ and the ‘why’

The what, how and why made explicit:

When we model, it is sometimes easy to forget to explain how we have arrived at decisions.

For example, in selecting quotations, English teachers are well-versed in explaining what we have selected and why  we have made this decision:

‘I am using this quotation here because it demonstrates that Simon appears as prophetic about the future, both literally and figuratively, and the pronoun you perhaps indicates that Simon knows that he won’t be returning…’

‘I have selected these lines because we see a poignant moment between Shylock and Portia; the chiastic structure could indicate…’

What has been missing from my own practice is the explicit explanation of how I have reached the decisions I have reached. This is hard to articulate; we know our texts well. We have read them so many times that we retrieve lines effortlessly. We need to place ourselves in the position of our students, who have usually only had one reading, often in short and fractured bursts, with a text that does not belong to them.

Part of this involves the mirroring seen in the Beachbody workout. We can engage in questioning as part of the process to ensure the students’ positions are mirrored by us, as teachers. Modelling instruction is best as a dialogic process, and it is possibly the only authentic way to ensure that the students experiences as novices as truly reflected in the modelling process.

If we leap to the next stage of the process by including a quotation without explaining how we arrived at that point, then our students miss a step. When we see irrelevant or odd textual references in essays, perhaps a leap has been made in the modelling and some kind of mismatch of ideas has resulted.

  • ‘I have just explained that Caius Martius shows a dislike for the patricians, but now I should support this with an example of when he does this. Could you all please now write on your whiteboards a specific time when he does this? I don’t need a quotation at this point. We are thinking about when this happens.’

[students hold up boards/enter ideas in the chat function, in Covid times]

  • ‘Simon, Mary, Ibrahim and Nez, I can see that you have all written that a citizen calls Caius ‘chief enemy to the people.’ Let’s look back to what we are searching for. I am going to re-read my first line again… So we are looking for a quotation in which Caius Martius shows a dislike for the patricians. In your example, they dislike him – but Caius is not yet on the stage.’
  • ‘Mo, you have written that Caius is rude about them when he first enters. That’s right, well done. Can you tell me where in the play I should look for that line please, Sam?’
  • ‘Excellent – we need to look to Act 1, Scene 1. I will now open my copy of the play and look at the start. Now we’ve just agreed that he isn’t there at the very  beginning, so I’ll flick forward for the first Menenius section…’

And so on.

In repositioning ourselves so that we can be mirrored by our students, we need to make everything explicit. Nothing can be left to chance or guesses.

The entire modelling experience can be brought from the internal, automated systems we have for our own work, into an external, vocalised experience for our students. Slowly, the methods will become their own. Confidence and motivation will follow, and then we start the cycle again on the next skill.


Linked Image: Richard Westall, 1800: Volumnia pleading with Coriolanus not to destroy Rome. Part of the Folger Shakespeare Library digital image collection. Licensed under the Creative Commons Licence.