Modeling Instruction Pedagogy


I am enrolled in a Modeling Instruction Workshop in Michigan. We have only four days left of the 15 scheduled days. I had planned to blog about the workshop every day, but I found that it was difficult for me to articulate my thoughts quickly enough to post daily. I know several teachers that are using the Modeling Curriculum, including Erica Posthuma Adams. You may have seen her posts here at ChemEd X highlighting ideas from Modeling Instruction so I was not unfamiliar with the term. But, I must admit that I had developed several misconceptions about Modeling Instruction before seeing it for myself.

My biggest "AH HA " has been that I had assumed Modeling Instruction was a curriculum that used models. When I say models, I am visualizing having students create models and draw models to represent what is happening on a particle level. That perception understated the method immensely. What I have discovered is that the Modeling Instruction curriculum is a vehicle for a conceptual pedagogy that teachers use to lead students to a conceptualization of chemistry concepts. Teachers use whiteboards and other modeling tools as formative assessment to uncover misconceptions and help students develop their own model of the atom and how it relates to chemistry content. This approach mirrors how the field of chemistry naturally evolved. Because of this, the order of topics must be addressed in a specific order.

As I am trying to wrap my head around using the modeling curriculum this fall, one of my biggest hurdles will be adjusting to the idea that I will not be teaching my students about the nucleus of the atom, electron configurations or the organization of the periodic table during first semester! There is some flexibility in the order of topics, but the curriculum is written to address the following Big Ideas:

  1. Physical Properties of Matter
  2. Energy -Particles in Motion
  3. Energy and States of Matter
  4. Describing Substances
  5. Counting Particles Too Small to See
  6. Particles With Internal Structure
  7. Chemical Reactions: Particles and Energy
  8. Introduction to Stoichiometry
  9. Further Applications of Stoichiometry
  10. Models of the Atom (Revisited)
  11. Bonding and the Periodic Table

12a.Temperature and Thermal Energy

12b. Intermolecular Attractions and Biological Macromolecules

13. Chemical Equilibrium

14. Acids and Bases

I have already transformed my classes to include more inquiry based learning by revising my approach to labs. I use modeling and Socratic questioning techniques already, but I have been able to see and practice more of those techniques within the workshop. I am looking forward to trying out some of those new skills with students. The biggest change will be the order of topics and focusing on helping students to develop their own model of the atom as we observe things within the curriculum that they can’t already explain with the previous model that they developed.  

I have been using many activities that provide models for students to manipulate with the desire to help them understand a concept. The Modeling Instruction curriculum provides lab experiences so that students discover evidence that their previous model cannot explain. Then, the student develops a new model to accomodate that new evidence. This is parallel to how science evolves every day.

I also appreciate that the curriculum develops conceptual understanding of the relationships and ratios in chemistry as opposed to emphasizing algorithmic problem solving. I have become a big fan of using the BCA format for stoichiometry instead of using dimensional analysis/factor label method.

I would love to hear from others that are using modeling instruction. I am interested in hearing success stories, but I am also interested in difficulties that teachers have had in making the transition.

You can find out more about the Modeling Curriculum, how to find a workshop to attend and how to become a member at their Web site.

Join the conversation.

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Comments 5

Erica Posthuma's picture
Erica Posthuma | Thu, 07/03/2014 - 15:17


I'm so glad to hear you are enjoying your workshop!  I too had the same inaccurate perception that modeling instruction was just going to show me how to incorporate more models into my curriculum.  It is SO MUCH MORE.  I have learned more about pedagogy, learning theory, and chemistry in my involvement with the AMTA than I did in any of my pre-service training.  I highly suggest following #modsci, #modchem, and #modphys on twitter to connect with other teachers using Modeling Instruction. 

Michigan is really building a nice size group of science modelers, you should have some wonderful resources close by! 

Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Sun, 07/06/2014 - 14:38

Do you use the entire curriculum? Do you cut and paste from your previous curriculum? I am worried about missing some of the standards in our Michigan Framework, but maybe I can just modify the curriculum a little. The presenters at my workshop have said that it will be difficult for a first year modeler to complete the entire curriculum.  Since I am practiced in using inquiry, some white boarding and some socratic questioning technique, I am hoping that I will be able to move along adequately. Do you have hints, suggestions for keeping on pace? 

Larry Dukerich's picture
Larry Dukerich | Fri, 07/04/2014 - 09:11


Deanna wrote about how her experiences at a Modeling Instruction workshop this summer have helped her to address some naïve conceptions about what this approach is about. She recognized that content is just one part of what the workshop has to offer; the major thrust is helping teachers understand the implications of the pedagogy.  Traditional chemistry curricula tend to "help" students by skipping all that nasty stuff about HOW we come to understand the structure of matter and the changes it undergoes, and gets to the WHAT right out of the gate.  This paradigm assumes that if students can successfully do quantitative problem solving to determine the mass of a product formed or how much energy is released during a reaction that they also must have a deep conceptual understanding of nature of matter and how changes occur. There is very little treatment of the evidence used to support the models we currently employ and how we choose one model over another.  Dudley Herron wrote in The Chemistry Classroom (ACS 1996):

“Pick any introductory chemistry text and look at it.  Is it organized according to a logical order or a psychological order? Does it begin with phenomena that are closely related to the experience of students? Does it introduce abstract notions such as atoms, molecules, ideal gases, bonding and kinetic theory only when the student senses a need for some way to explain what he has already observed?  More likely it is developed logically and begins with some tools – the metric system, temperature scales (all of them), perhaps some chemical symbols and a few equations, some math skills, and significant digits – then proceeds with atoms in all of their glory, molecules and bonding.  This plodding takes a spell, but it certainly seems worthwhile because, once it is done, the chemical changes that we want students to see and to know are much easier to talk about.

The problem is that students cannot see where this information is leading, and it does not seem logical at all to them.  “Why are you asking me to do all of these weird things?” is their unspoken question.  We see the need for what we are asking them to learn, but the beginning students do not. In fact, they cannot.”


By contrast each unit in the Modeling approach to chemistry begins with some phenomena that we want students to try to make sense of.  We propose a model that could help account for the observed behavior and then test its applicability to related phenomena.  When the model no longer does a good job, we discuss how it ought to be changed to do a more adequately explain or predict the behavior of matter. Thus, we start with the simplest model of the atom (a simple BB - essentially a Democritus atom), and add features as needed.  One logical consequence of this is that we examine phenomena that require a simpler model earlier in the course and save more robust models until they are needed.  One does not need a Bohr model of the atom in order to understand Kinetic Molecular Theory; in fact, we presume that gases are composed of simple particles with no internal structure that do not interact with one another.  The progression works because students recognize how the model helps them understand what is going on and what limitations it might have.  Students don't have to accept the authority of the teacher or the textbook; as much as is practical, they are introduced to the evidence that leads to the development of a new model or modification of an existing one.  We argue that this understanding of the nature of science and scientific reasoning is what we really want our students to have when they leave our classroom.  This emphasis of models and modeling is entirely consistent with the goals found in the NGSS.

This approach often causes some dissonance among instructors when they first encounter it because it runs contrary to the way most of them have been taught.  Those who are able to embrace the pedagogy have reported greater student satisfaction and improved performance on standard tests. Content doesn't have to be pounded into students' heads. Students are naturally curious beings; they derive satisfaction when THEY can make sense of the world around them. Modeling Instruction allows this to happen.


greg rushton's picture
greg rushton | Mon, 07/14/2014 - 09:25

Hi guys,

good conversation so far!  Having not been exposed to a modeling workshop yet, I'm wondering about the extent to which the 'natural curiousity' that Larry expects to exploit to engage students in this approach extends to the phenomena we present to does the BB ('Democritus atom') sufficiently excite the students to join the adventure of developing models to account for the properties and interactions we observe in each system we encounter?  I have read through several of the modules so far and I'm wondering if that's a place we could possibly improve upon, as well as the discourse practices employed during the whiteboarding, which seems to still emphasize the teacher 'guiding' the conversation rather than the students do so?

just a couple of thoughts as i read through this very useful and interesting blog!



Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Tue, 07/15/2014 - 09:34

Having just completed the workshop, I have no first hand experience for evidence of student engagement. I did feel as I completed many of the activities provided in the curriculum that I wished I had been taught in this way. I felt it was a more intuitive approach. I excelled at memorization of algorithmic facts, but my high school self was annoyed that I always knew what the results of our laboratories should be before I completed them. I wanted to discover things for myself.

 Erica Posthuma Adams wrote about several of the approaches to white boarding and Socratic questioning techniques that we practiced in the workshop. She explains that the teacher initially guides much of the questioning. As students become comfortable with the process, they are expected to initiate that same questioning in small groups or in front of the class. Erica states that students invest in each other’s learning and I hope to be able to reach that level of engagement in my own course.