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Teaching by Example

by Sanderson Beck

Both Freud and C. G. Jung recognized the unconscious processes that occur in identification and learning from example. Freud (1933) described identification as occurring when "one ego becomes like another one, which results in the first ego behaving ... in certain respects in the same way as the second; it imitates it, and as it were takes it into itself." It can be inferred that identification is a psychological process whereby a person internalizes traits, attitudes, and behavioral patterns of another person whom one consciously or subconsciously wishes to emulate. For Freud, this is a healthy process in contrast to introjection which is when a person suffering neurosis regarding some object or aspect of a person attempts to internalize the object and devour it to carry on the conflict or problem within one's own personality.

Jung (1925) stressed the importance of education through example because the child, like the primitive psyche, does not carefully distinguish between oneself and the environment. This unconscious education through example is one of the oldest psychic characteristics, and is effective when other direct methods fail. Jung concludes, "In the last analysis, all education rests on this fundamental fact of psychic identity, and in all cases the deciding factor is this seemingly automatic contagion through example. This is so important that even the best methods of conscious education can sometimes be completely nullified by bad example."

Behaviorists like Bandura (1967) prefer the terms imitation and modeling to conceptualize the "process whereby a person reproduces the behavior exhibited by real-life or symbolized models." Basically their research shows that children will imitate the behaviors of a model, whether it is a live person, a person on film, or a cartoon. There are several factor which determine how much they will repeat similar behaviors to the model. A major factor is how the model is shown to be reinforced or punished. Naturally a positively reinforced model is more likely to be imitated, while a punished model is the least imitated. However, Bandura (1967) found that this could be easily changed with the introduction of rewards. Therefore he concluded that even though there may be little overt behavior after observing a punished model, the behavior was learned and could be expressed if an opportunity of a rewarding situation presented itself.

Another important factor is the positive feeling and attachment to the model. Bandura indicates that once the behavior becomes positively valued, the child is likely to continue it even in the absence of socializing agents and external rewards.

One factor teachers should be aware of is that children will more likely identify with the reward-giver than with those who are competing to receive the reward due to the influential social power (Macoby, 1959). Therefore when a teacher attempts to show the class a good example of a student by rewarding good work, she should be aware that her example in this action will probably be more influential than the student's, except for the difference due to similarity to the other students.

There are two main similarity factors. One is that the environmental situation of the modeling will determine in what type of situations the children will be likely to imitate the behavior. The other is the similarity between the model and the child observing it. Portuges and N. Feshbach (1972) in a study involving white middle-class children and black lower-class children observing white female models using a positive reinforcing approach versus a negative, critical approach found that white boys and girls imitated the models more than black boys and girls, that the girl within each group imitated more than the boys, and that the teacher using the positive approach was imitated more than the critical teacher. Thus race and ethnic features were most influential, and sex identity was also important as was the positive attitude of the model.

Understanding these concepts, we can see they will tend to work in the classroom. What the teacher does is probably at least as important as what she says. A positive and warm attitude is likely to be reciprocated and emulated. All of the study habits and intellectual skills of the teacher are going to influence the children in some way, even if only subconsciously. For example if the teacher has the subject well-organized, how much easier it is going to be for the student not just in relation to the content, but also in their methods of organization! Or if the teacher goes out of balance emotionally, the children will feel it also, and the situation can become very difficult and complex. Any negative or aggressive behavior on the teacher's part is going to be impressed on the subconscious minds of the children and will likely be expressed when an appropriate situation arises. The teacher should be aware that there is a psychological principle underneath the Golden Rule.

When there are students in the class of the opposite sex of the teacher or of different ethnic or cultural background, it would be highly advisable to find positive models in the community and invite them to come into the classroom occasionally. Even a little of this exposure can go a long way, because it gives the children an experience that they can hold in their imaginations and reflect on for weeks. For example, a former student who has become successful can be quite effective. Also carefully selected films can be shown to expand and enrich the students' experience with positive images that they can relate to so they can identify those qualities within themselves.

Copyright 1996 by Sanderson Beck

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