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Mental Models. Presented by Bryan Downer & Elaine Garcia. Mental Models – What are they?. Mental models are the images (attitudes and assumptions) we carry in our minds about ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world which guide our interpretations and behavior.

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Mental models

Mental Models

Presented by

Bryan Downer & Elaine Garcia

Mental models what are they
Mental Models – What are they?

  • Mental models are the images (attitudes and assumptions) we carry in our minds about ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world which guide our interpretations and behavior.

  • Like a pane of glass which restricts or distorts our vision, our mental models determine what we see.

    • Typically exist below the level of awareness

    • We tend to be attracted to, and take in, only

      the information that reinforces our mental


      P. Senge

The effect of mental models
The Effect of Mental Models


does not get


mental model

some info.

gets through,

but is changed

only info. that

fits “familiar

ways of thinking

& acting” gets

through unchanged

Awareness of mental models
Awareness of Mental Models

  • Senge explains that we cannot possibly process equally and accurately all of the reality that is around us. By necessity we have to operate according to mental models in order to concentrate our efforts. However, mental models are limiting. They limit because they require assumptions. Assumptions are not data, but rather are inferred from data. Therefore, they are subject to error.

  • Senge is not recommending that we get rid of our mental models, but is strongly suggesting that we remain aware of them. That awareness keeps us open to new data and continuous mental model revision.

The ladder of inference
The Ladder of Inference

  • We operate on self-generating beliefs based on conclusions inferred from what we observe, plus our past experience. Senge refers to this as climbing up a mental “ladder of inference” – a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction, often leading to misguided beliefs.

  • The only observable data is the action at the bottom of the ladder and your decision to take action at the top. However, traveling up the rungs of the ladder takes place in your head – unseen and unquestioned assumptions and conclusions, perhaps considered unfit for discussion. These leaps up the ladder are sometimes called “leaps of abstraction.”

The ladder of inference leaps of abstraction based on our mental models
The Ladder of InferenceLeaps of abstraction based on our mental models

Traveling up the Ladder of Inference

- José will never change. He will always

misbehave and needs to be suspended.

- José is a bad student and he will be

a problem for me.

- José was transferred to our school

because he misbehaves a lot

- The previous school couldn’t handle


- José gets in trouble and suspended

a lot.

- José has multiple referrals in his cum.

- José transferred from a neighboring


Differences in our mental models
Differences in our Mental Models

Real case example:

Teacher A:28-year old, moved up to 3rd grade to have a greater impact on student achievement after teaching kindergarten for 8 years, effective team leader and supporter in grade level, continually asks for coaching support and effectively plans for & implements new strategies, effectively uses data to implement targeted interventions

Teacher B:60-year old, feels overwhelmed with implementing new student engagement strategies & a new math program, struggles with meeting the diverse needs of her students, has low expectations for student learning, resistant to coaching support, not a “team player”

Differences in our mental models1
Differences in our Mental Models

Real case example (continued):

The new principal proposed becoming a Math & Science Magnet School with a grant providing $350,000 per year for 3 years for staff development/planning days and materials. She has several years of grant writing and program implementation experience & successfully helped 2 elementary schools and 1 middle school in the district become magnet schools. Being a magnet school would help improve the image of the elementary school and draw in more students. Other magnet schools have found that students are more motivated and want to read more because they are excited about science. Magnet schools have found students perform better on the CST in math, language arts, & 5th grade science.

Discussion Question:

Based on their mental models, how do you think Teacher A & Teacher B perceive & vote on this magnet school proposal?

Awareness of our mental models
Awareness of our Mental Models

Generational Mental Models– Knowing the values and characteristics of the different generations helps us to understand their mental models.

“Matures” = respect for authority, group-oriented, family and work are separate, delayed gratification, seniority

“Baby Boomers” = optimistic, defined by their job, “workaholics”, competitive, success is visible

“Generation Xers” = skeptical (“prove it to me”), value free time, short-term goals

“Millenials” = optimistic, time to grow up later (“adult-olescence”), instant gratification, expected to succeed

Mental Models in our Leadership Style – Our mental models shape our leadership style.

Nondirective  Collaborative  Directive Informational  Directive Control

Mental models in the workplace
Mental Models in the Workplace

Behind every plan lies a multitude of mental models, unconsciously shaping our decisions about who will be served, what issues will be addressed, what actions we will permit ourselves to take, what outcomes are desirable, and what standards we will use to determine effectiveness.

J. B. Arango, Algodones Assoc. Inc.

Mental models can limit our ability to change. Because mental models limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting, me must expose and challenge our mental models as some will have to change in order to change our future.

Working with mental models
Working with Mental Models

“The discipline of mental models starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny. It also includes the ability to carry on ‘learningful’ conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others.”

Senge, P. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Drawing forth our inner assumptions about 4 critical areas
Drawing Forth Our Inner Assumptions About 4 Critical Areas:

1.What are our beliefs about how children learn?

- Do we truly believe that all children can succeed?

2. What content do we assume is best to teach?

  • Are we so focused on “teaching to the test” that we produce students who can pass tests, but fail life?

    3. How is the material best delivered?

  • Do we have high expectations for all students while providing appropriate scaffolding as needed?

    4. How is staff development supported organizationally?

    - Are organizational support systems in place to ensure that desired changes are carried out? P. Senge