Is mimicry always a bad thing?

Make not your thoughts your prisons.

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

Mimicry is the conscious or unconscious copying of experts in order. To understand the potential dangers of mimicry, it helps to understand the difference between learning and performance. Perhaps the differences can be summed up like this:

Performance is inflexible, short-term and easy to spot, whereas learning is flexible, durable and invisible.

Much of what we do in classrooms is geared towards maximising students’ performance (because it’s easy to spot) whilst ignoring whether learning is taking place (because it’s very hard to correctly infer). Increasing student’s performance is widely regarded as an acceptable proxy for learning, but in actual fact, much of what we see in classrooms is probably just mimicry. We ask students questions about what we’ve just been teaching and then, we they hesitate, we say, “Talk to your partner,” “Look in your books,” and we point to clues on the board. We prop up performance with prompts and then take mimicked responses as evidence of learning.

Because learning new stuff can be confusing, mimicry is a refuge, a blending in. When we mimic, we find a place we can occupy in order not to look foolish. Teachers need always to be aware that students are trying hard to do the right thing – the reason their attempts are superficial and uncertain is because they’re novices; they don’t yet know enough to have mastered complx concepts. Students are skilled at mimicry – they’re really good at knowing what we want and presenting it to us in a way which looks like learning. They can even mimic at essay length.

Of course, learning does occur through mimicry but often it leads to a kind of ‘functional naivety’ sufficient to get you through a test but unlikely to lead to mastery.

Because students have yet to pass through the thresholds that lead to expertise, any attempt to shortcut the process is only likely to lead to mimicry and inflexibility. We can’t expect them to see deep structure until they’ve amassed sufficient expertise in the shallows. They need to learn the concrete before they can generalise to the abstract…We want our students to have an understanding of the deep structure of a domain of knowledge, but we have to be patient. If we want someone to have an insight, simply telling them what the insight is ‘meant to be’ robs them of seeing it for themselves. Instead we can tell them as much about the surface features of problem as we can and wait for them join our dots. Mimicry is a necessary waiting room in the chaos of liminal space. Feeling frustrated that children know, say, their times tables but are unable to do long division is daft. As they learn more facts, see more examples and get more practice they will slowly but surely move towards an expert’s understanding of the subject.

What if Everything you Knew about Education was Wrong? (p. 200-1)

This suggests that there might be ‘good mimicry’ and ‘bad mimicry’. Bad mimicry comes about when superficial understanding is misinterpreted as expertise. This happens a lot. I recently watched a lesson where a teacher explained to students that you could use a semi-colon instead of the word ‘because’. This kind of makes sense but it’s functional naivety which ends up with students writing sentences like this:

I ate some chips; I like them.

I changed the tyres on my bike; it worked better.

The light got darker; the moon was covered by clouds.

Although these are clunky and inelegant they ‘sort of’ work. More troubling, one student wrote this:

The writer’s technique is interesting; of the way he uses alliteration to create a threatening atmosphere.

You can see exactly what’s gone wrong – the students has internalised the rule that semi-colons replace because and misapplied it because the rule doesn’t really work.  If instead they’d understood that you can only use a semi-colon to join two independent clauses, this mistake wouldn’t have happened. This sort of mimicry is a compensation for lack of understanding – I may not understand why a semi-colon can sometimes replace because but I can certainly find and replace because in my writing. This kind of quasi-plagiarism – shoving half-digested ideas into essays –  is a prison of the mind.

‘Good mimicry’ involves attempts at understanding, troubled misunderstanding and limited understanding. As long as students know that learning takes time and that partial understandings are how we move to fuller understandings, all should be well. When students ask for help and say, “Is this what you wanted?” they’re demonstrating partial understanding. This is a more conscious process – there’s some awareness that what is required is out of reach except by mimicry. If we’re focussed on the flexibility and durability characteristic of learning, then we won’t be troubled by misunderstandings in the here and now. We can have the confidence to tell students that although they’re on the right lines, they haven’t yet understood. We can acknowledge that learning is recursive and keep coming back to the thorny areas of the curriculum. We can tell students that there’s no hurry and that the point of it all is for them to think themselves free of limited, superficial understandings.

12 Responses to Is mimicry always a bad thing?

  1. Ephemeral321 says:

    Loved this.

  2. cmoyse says:

    In some subjects mimicry is very important. PE is often about just replicating technique modelled by the teacher. Performance is surely part of learning though. It doesn’t prove that the learning is ‘mastered’ but surely it is evidence that the learning process has started. In many subjects we need these basic replicated skills to draw upon as we move towards applying them in unfamiliar circumstances. Again this is essential in Physical Education.
    Our assessment processes certainly encourage this ‘is this what you want’ culture but imitation is in many cases a good step in the right direction. The first step in learning?
    Interesting post as ever David. Thanks for always challenging our thinking. Such an important role.
    Cheers,
    Chris

  3. […] to an expert, but to a novice it’s a checklist of barely understood ideas that will lead only to shallow mimicry. The basic premise of letting kids know what they’re supposed to be learning is fine, but I do […]

  4. Yes, mimicry at word level (sophisticated vocabulary), sentence level (reading / analysing say Dickens or Carver) and whole text level (using exemplars and modelling) can be a useful step towards students finding their own voice – we all imitate to learn. The danger can be that students use fine words to make empty sentences with little real knowledge, thought or meaning underpinning them. I’ve sometimes read a whole paragraph essentially saying nothing! Yet sometimes using high level sentence stems, for example, can lead into more thoughtful sentences. These are all steps on the way, as you say.

  5. […] students see expertise in action they can mimic. With scaffolding and plenty of practice they become increasingly […]

  6. […] comes to the fore. They seem like they’ve mastered it, but this is, as often as not, mere mimicry. Conceptual change, the pressure to transform or revise misconceptions as new understandings are […]

  7. […] lessons. And students are skilled at mimicking what they think teachers want to see and hear. This mimicry might result in learning but often […]

  8. […] Students come to our lessons already knowing many things. Some of these things are useful foundations for future learning, but others are naive misconceptions about the way the world works. When we teach a new concept, this new idea may, momentarily, displace the existing misconception; students’ performance will increase and they may well be able to do something they were previously unable to do. This performance might represent a last change in long-term memory, but it is likely to be just mimicry. […]

  9. […] Make not your thoughts your prisons. Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra Mimicry is the conscious or unconscious copying of experts in order. To understand the potential dangers of mimicry, it helps to understand the difference between learning and performance. Perhaps the differences can be summed up like this: Performance is inflexible, short-term and easy to spot, whereas learning  […]

  10. […] current performance from which we are inferring learning. Current performance may be ‘mere mimicry‘. If we assume our instruction is effective and move on, we will often be […]

  11. […] If we invest lesson time on improving students’ performance at best we will be valuing mimicry, but at worst we might end up inadvertently undermining long-term learning. Aside from the […]

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