Modeling is More Than Replicating

Students often examine and interact with models as they learn content. But is it really modeling when students create a 3-dimensional representation of a cell?

cell model

We’ll use the word “modeling” here to refer to the practice of developing and using models in science. Teacher modeling of behaviors, skills, and cognitive routines is incredibly important in classrooms, but this post will focus on students’ interactions with conceptual models.

From the page 50 of the Framework for K-12 Science Education:

Science often involves the construction and use of a wide variety of models and simulations to help develop explanations about natural phenomena. Models make it possible to go beyond observables and imagine a world not yet seen. Models enable predictions of the form “if … then … therefore” to be made in order to test hypothetical explanations.

Creating the cell representation pictured above might demonstrate a student’s ability to design to criteria or to recall the shape of organelles, but it isn’t really an explanation or prediction. Stephen Pruitt, one of the authors of both the Framework and the NGSS, has shared this quote at conferences:

If you can eat it, it’s probably not a model.

Replicating a model from a textbook or the internet isn’t actually developing a model. While there might be some potential value in the replication, this is a very different activity from a student developing his or her own model to explain phenomena. Edible cell models aren’t generally used to explain how a cell functions or to make predictions about interactions between cells. We might consider adding another qualifier:

If students don’t revise the model in response to new evidence, they probably aren’t modeling.

To really be modeling, students need to have multiple pathways to success at creating their explanations or predictions of phenomena. The “minds-on” component of modeling is even more critical than the hands-on component. Not every model is tangible after all: Students who are developing models are creating explanations, visualizations, analogies, or equations based on observations. Particularly in secondary science classes, equations as models become very important.


Any model might require additional information, labels, or other communication to really explain something. In the example above, a middle school student has identified the meaning of one expression and the source of another. (We hope that we can see the latter expression being developed in their notebook entry yesterday!)

By providing students with opportunities to develop these models themselves, we move one step closer to achieving the goals in the Framework!

Looking for some additional resources to help students with modeling?

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