Mental Models in Learning

We all view the same world differently. Some see climate change is caused by humans. Others see it caused by nature. But why?

This is because we are all guided by our own mental models. Dedre Gentner, professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, explains that we each have mental representations (mental models) that support our understanding, reasoning, and prediction. In other words, we use mental models in learning.

Research suggests that our prior experiences help shape our current mental models. For example, growing up in a Republican family versus a Democratic family can certainly shape an individual’s perspective of our nation’s policies. Mental models guide our thinking and how we take action to solve problems we face in our country.

The good news is that we can modify and expand our mental models through new experiences.

How do we do this? Here is a tip. Expose your learners to new perspectives. For example, a social studies teacher can set up a classroom debate of Republicans versus Democrats. After the first debate, have learners switch parties so they can debate using arguments from the other party’s point of view. Then watch their eyes light up as they develop expanded mental models.

Image by DonkeyHotey / CC BY

About Parker Grant, PhD

Parker Grant is the founder of Instructional Design Industry, an online community for learning designers, instructional designers, and many other learning professionals (new and experienced). Parker holds a PhD in Adult Learning and a MS in Educational Technology. His consulting firm, Learning Connects, continues to offer learning design and development services.

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