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There is a tendency to think of imitation as the lowest form of learning — "mere" imitation — and as having little place in the exalted reaches of adult and higher education. Nevertheless, Blackmore (1999) — whatever you think of the more specific claims of her thesis — has reclaimed it by demonstrating not only how effective a form of learning imitation is, but also the sophistication required in order to be able to imitate.

Compared with the behavioural model of learning, which is a form of time-conflated evolution — of several potential responses to a situation, one or two are reinforced, and so on — imitation gets straight to the point. The teacher demonstrates or models (whether or not she is aware of so doing), and the learner imitates. There are no "wrong" answers or dead ends: the quality of the learning is purely in the faithfulness of the reproduction of the action which has been demonstrated...

— and of course the ability to select what it is appropriate to imitate (no, sticking out your tongue just so at the point of throwing the clay is not an essential feature of learning to be a potter)

— and the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the demonstrator (there's a world of difference between watching the chef toss a pancake and feeling the weight of the pan yourself).

The potency of imitation as a component of learning in social situations has been developed by the social learning theorists, associated particularly with Albert Bandura, and it is undoubtedly a potent factor in developing the social infrastructure of the class. Students may model their conduct and attitudes on the teacher or on a leader within the student group — for better or for worse.

More on social learning theory Outline of Bandura's work

 It also has implications for learning in the cognitive and psychomotor domains as well as the affective: and it goes on regardless of the intentions of the teacher. It can be argued that since it goes on willy-nilly, it is worthy of much more attention than it normally receives.


Modelling oneself on someone (a "role-model") is a more generalised and sophisticated variant, based on the tacit question, "What would so-and-so do in this situation?" It is an important issue in the socialisation of young people, for whom the role-models might be parents, or prominent peers, or media figures, and has a venerable history (such as the original Mentor, and Thomas a Kempis "Imitation of Christ", one of the great spiritual classics of all time).

Imitation and modelling choices belong to the students. I gather that the title "guru" is conferred by the disciple—not claimed by the master. So modelling is an undercurrent in all kinds of teaching: it leads to a variation on Kant's categorical imperative for the teacher—"always act as if you were prepared to be a model for your students". Gulp!

"Do as I say, not as I do" is not an option.

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