Mental models

In the latest instalment of his Driving School Improvement series Stephen Mitchell, chief operating officer at the Spencer Academies Trust in Nottingham, looks at team learning – the fourth aspect of the ‘learning organisation model’ – and how to achieve it in your school

We all look at the world through a different lens, and with a different perspective; thank goodness we do, as it would be a very boring place to be if we didn’t. Shocking, though, is the finding (Fullan, 2010) that there is significant experience of teachers vocalising a belief that they cannot foresee a situation whereby change is possible.

There has been a good debate raging, recently, on Twitter about whether CEOs of MATs can ever come from a non-teaching background. Without wanting to repeat that debate here, this is a good example of mental models that people hold which inherently affect the way they view their roles, and their work; it’s only when we really understand what key beliefs our colleagues hold, and how these impact upon their day-to-day work, that we can hope to really effect improved performance.

In our roles as SBLs we work across a variety of disciplines without being an expert in them all – making the importance of ‘mental models’ even more important for us to recognise.  We are affected, daily, by our experiences to date, and we bring this to bear on our work. These cognitive biases can be both incredibly helpful, and incredibly dangerous.

Please look at before you read any further.

Were you amazed by your lack of noticing some fairly obvious things? This is because, in a very simple experiment, you were primed to focus on one particular task, to the detriment of general attention to stuff you would otherwise normally expect yourself to notice. How many times do we miss the big picture at work because we’re focused on a particular task, or because we ‘just know’ the answer?

What are mental models?

Mental models help us make order out of life. For example, we all have a mental model that beds are meant to be in bedrooms, and not in other rooms; imagine walking into a kitchen and seeing a bed in the middle of the room! But walk into the same room, and see a table in the middle of it, and you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

The fact that mental models work can blinker us to the potential for change, or for facts that we have chosen to, subconsciously, ignore. This can hamper the way we work, as we fall into the trap of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ without exploring alternatives.

Senge’s learning organisation model states that every important decision we take usually goes through the cycle of:

  • Taking actions based on my beliefs.
  • Adopting beliefs about the world.
  • Building conclusions.
  • Drawing assumptions based on meaning.
  • Adding meanings (culturally and personally).
  • Selecting information that you observe.
  • Observing information and experiences.

However, this is a two-way loop as we reflect on experiences, demonstrating that these mental models which we develop through our life experiences implicitly affect future decisions. Most people start at the top of the ladder, diving right into action – but what if we start at the bottom?

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We can change where we focus our attention by observing information, and a range of data we relate to, without quickly assigning meanings. When adopting meaning, from a cultural or personal standpoint, we tend to tune-in into our own experience and want to hear what others have to say. We may also end up keeping our meanings in our heads, or reserving our opinions to ourselves.

The way to break this cycle is to challenge our beliefs through:

  • Being aware of our thinking (asking ourselves, provoking questions and reasoning).
  • Showcasing our advocacy (using examples, facts, and information-gathering).
  • Inquiring into others’ thinking.
  • Interpreting the meaning.
  • Aligning thinking and expressing ourselves.

When we are able to become aware of our mental models, we ask ourselves what led us to this way of thinking or feeling, and whether the results intended were achieved. Challenging your beliefs and assumptions is never easy, but can be achieved using inquiry, dialogue and reflection. Breaking mental models is a powerful practice for individuals and leaders alike – so how can we apply this practice to an entire organisation?

How can we harness the power of mental models?

A key aspect when making decisions could be to step back and ask yourself what heuristics are affecting you; by doing so, you can challenge whether your mental models are still appropriate, or if you need to modify them to reflect the current situation you’re facing.

  • Create a culture of a learning and safe environment for information-sharing.
  • Drive teamwork and collaboration through reflective conversations and dialogue.
  • Ensure leaders are ready to share their individual mental models.
  • Use strategic planning.
  • Promote innovation.
  • Learn how to get unstuck.

People thrive when they learn what people do in other departments, how they work and what their daily lives look like. It’s helpful for them to learn more about what others do in different departments, not only to appreciate and understand the work of others, but also to apply this knowledge to their own thinking and behaviours. Discover potential inhibitors of your organisation, such as:

  • Leadership not driving the organisation.
  • Misaligned people practices, including incentives or rewards.
  • Organisational silos.
  • Inefficient management processes.

How does this fit with the other aspects of the learning organisation model?

This series is looking at the learning organisation model and mapping these onto how we can work in schools. I am of the firm belief that this model can and will bring huge benefits for those schools which can embrace it. The five disciplines are all very different, but all interlinked – together, they are very powerful.

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