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,
— 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
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
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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