Every Classroom is Nourished or Starved

Mental Models: What are they?

“The school is the sea. The students are the fish. If the sea is not kept at the right temperature the fish will die.”

Mental models are silent and usually unknown by
teachers, students, parents, peers, or those with any influence. They are unsolicited, just a random series of unconscious beliefs through which to manage personal
worlds and their personal relationships. Whether recognised or unknown, mental models work in such a way that the teacher and the student can be working as one or completely  stymieing the learning process. Below are two genuine grass roots examples with the same student but a different teacher.

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Example one is total failure.

I interviewed Cate in the teacher’s office. She was neither interested nor comfortable.

The student is Māori and the task is composing a poster for NCEA level one (the old fifth form). The teacher is a middle-aged Pakeha who is meticulous in her planning. She has saved the top-level posters from previous years. Another two or three will be saved from this batch allowing the removal of the less perfect from before. The modelling is near perfect, yet the girl in question does not even start the task and hands nothing in. Her reason was she did not know what to do.

Each teacher and each student’s mental models will be several. Here, one of the teachers, as an experienced teacher, will not be at fault. Another that the student is unmotivated and lazy as she does not even ask for help. Can you, the reader, think of at least one more? The teacher is pleased to work off some of her frustration by giving Cate a big, red zero.

There is also a mental model here about obedience or discipline that has nothing to do with the task. The lesson that the teacher had set for Cate will be marked either
summarily, at the end of a learning period to gauge progress, or to rank formatively during the learning process. Cate’s mental models show that what she needs is to be drip-fed formative assessment while she learns. However, the teacher chose summative.

Finding the Answer

The interview with Cate in the ICT classroom was a complete opposite. Can you, the reader, pick out one or two of the mental models that made the difference? If you can pick out even one of these hidden mental models, this indicates how you have progressed as a teacher in learning what one obstruction to learning in your classroom is, for at least some students. At the same time, you, the teacher, are becoming a continuous learner.

I had to interview Cate in the bustle of a motivated working classroom, so I pulled a chair over by her desk where we could easily hear each other, softly. That was when
she proudly showed me her poster which she had just completed in this ICT class. To further confuse and inflame the situation, it was almost perfect. If it had been presented in the English class, it would have gained a merit.

As we chatted, it became obvious that Cate had no problem talking to me, and that the reason for not completing the poster was neither laziness nor defiance but that she did not know what to do, despite the posters on the wall. As she tried to explain all this to me, allowing various inhibiting mental models to be hinted at. I now asked this question: “You are having no problem talking to me and you do not even know me. Surely you could have asked your teacher?”

Immediately the weather changed and there was a tenseness in her body and a scowl on her face. “I do not like the teacher!” she responded. While I was not surprised by this, the vehemence with which it was said indicated a deep emotional response.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because every time I ask her a question she answers to the whole class.” So that was it. The teacher was answering her in an authoritarian way. This so alienated the quiet but articulate introvert, that she chose to remain silent and fail, rather than be humiliated by her teacher. This is an example of how a teacher’s habit of answering to the whole class, has developed as a mental model, thus shutting off the learning.

for some. The model, perhaps picked up in her earlier teaching or somewhere else in her personal history, such as the habit of a favourite teacher, is the attention or not of her students while she remains unaware.

On the other side of the equation, the hidden student mental models will also determine the teacher unconsciously having favourites. These are the students who are nodding and smiling (mental modelling). Graham Nuthall’s research shows that students respond to the three times rule. Those who smile and nod will draw more teacher
positive attention, as will those who “appear” to focus on their work wherever the teacher is nearby. This unintentionally increases the depth of the three times rule.

When I asked Cate how she had developed such a good poster she emphasised that her teacher had helped her. I wanted to know how.

Again, the weather changed, her whole body lost any tenseness and her whole face lit up. “The teacher is lovely,” Cate said. “When I ask her a question she comes and sits beside me just like you are, and we chat about all the little bits and where they fit in. She is lovely.”

So, there was the answer. Not only was the ICT teacher a collegial adult but she also through quiet conversation provided the detailed structure that Cate needed to
complete her Poster. The ICT teacher was “being there” for Cate, quietly, through conversation, providing the right mental models such as the detailed structures that
Cate needed to complete her poster. Again, hidden mental models were influencing the learning – but this time positively.

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Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is an educational consultant based in New Zealand. As a principal, he was known for his leadership role in thinking skills, including Habits of Mind, learning styles and multiple intelligences, information technology, and the development of the school as a learning community. Alan can be reached at: 82napawine@gmail.com