Imitation: the Greatest Form of Learning

Nov 26, 2018 | Posted by Michelle


It was an average weekday morning. I was preparing to leave for work, when my niece of just under two years old came scampering into my room full of her morning energy. She stopped in her tracks when she noticed the various makeup supplies found on my dresser. Of course, I always seize an opportunity to score some “auntie points,” so I handed her a spare brush and an empty foundation canister.

Shortly after receiving the requested items, she made her way to a mirror and immediately started trying to apply foundation to her small cheeks as she has often watched her mom and I do. The grip of the brush was new to her hand, and this meant the movement was a bit awkward. Thinking about holding the brush and the foundation at the same time and keeping the foundation level was challenging for her; the idea of putting it on her face and not on her lips was a bit preposterous. I watched and laughed before I came to a realization: She was solidifying a notion I have heard since I have started working at IEW.

“Model and imitation” resounds within the walls of the IEW offices and classrooms. It is echoed in our podcasts, repeated in articles, and communicated in phone calls. This idea seems to be pretty logical in most areas of life. If you want your child to learn to talk, you talk to them. If you want them to treat people well, you treat people with respect. If you want them to learn how to write their own music, you first give them written music to learn from. Makes sense, right? If so, then why do we expect our students to succeed in writing by giving them a blank piece of paper and a command to write something new—something no one has thought of before?

The command to be unique is daunting enough to any adult with a brain filled with life’s experiences. But, ask this of a child who has so little knowledge to pull from, and the task immediately becomes as scary and unconquerable as the monsters they imagine under their beds—unknown, larger than life, and intimidating. But to get rid of the monsters hiding with the cobwebs, one simply has to turn on a flashlight to see these fears dissipate. The writing equivalent to the flashlight is taking away the blank page of unknowns and providing tools to help plan and execute the adventure of learning to write.

The system of model and imitation works for the very foundational skills of learning how to speak, so there is no need to try to find a new approach when it comes to writing. That is why IEW does not begin teaching writing by slipping a giant white piece of paper in front of a fourth grader (or even an eleventh grader) with an ambiguous prompt about how their summer vacation went. Instead, it starts by giving them exactly what to write about: sentence by sentence, fact by fact, question by question. Students are first taught the how to write before the what to write.

Of course, the system of writing is modeled continually by the teacher. From the very beginning of the process to the end product, we believe there is no such thing as too much help. Ever.

My niece's grip on the brush was awkward and out of place. My writing students’ papers at the beginning of this year had awkward sentences and poorly chosen -ly adverbs. The makeup was new to one, the words were unfamiliar to the others, but this is natural. It is normal. Doing anything the first time (or the fifteenth time!) might just not be as well done as a person who has already mastered the art, but it is in the process that it smooths out. It is in the continuous study and practice of the art that it becomes second nature. It’s true: imitation is the greatest form of learning—it is the greatest process to achieving the perfect product.


Michelle Robinson started out working in Production and as a marketing assistant, but now enjoys working with the Customer Service Department. Having been homeschooled her whole life, Michelle had the opportunity to compete in a homeschool speech and debate league. Because she is a Latin scholar, Michelle has been asked to teach that subject to the local homeschooling community. Michelle is passionate about photography, her friends, and her faith.

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