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    16. 3CM: A Tool for Knowing “Where They’re At”


    Effective communication, engagement, and behavior change requires more than information and opportunity; it requires understanding the people whom you hope to interact with or impact. How do they see the issue? What really matters to them? What do they bring in terms of knowledge, beliefs, and unique perspectives? In short, it requires understanding people’s mental models, or knowing “where they’re at.” This chapter introduces the Conceptual Content Cognitive Map (3CM), an effective and accessible tool for assessing people’s mental models. 3CM can be used in formal research but can just as effectively be used by practitioners, leaders, and community members both for taking a quick look at where people are at and for exploring mental models at a deeper level.

    Many people seeking to have a positive social impact have learned the hard way that designs and programs that look great on paper may fall short in the real world. Examples in developing countries abound—a well-designed water filter remains unused because it is a bit of a hassle, and people do not see the connection between dirty water and disease; a clean water distribution program is underutilized because it does not fit people’s needs and lifestyle; an award-winning neonatal incubator remains forever a prototype because it does not match the needs and interests of manufacturers and distributors (Brown & Wyatt, 2010).

    Of course, one does not have to look to developing countries for examples of failed products and programs; most of us, in fact, can readily find examples in our own communities. A common thread here is a failure to fully understand and consider the knowledge, needs, values, and behaviors of the people involved. As Timothy Prestero (2010), the founder of Design That Matters, puts it, “There is no such thing as a dumb user. There are only dumb products” (p. 108). Another way to put it is this: if you want to effectively interact with or influence people, you have to understand them.

    So, what’s to understand? Well, you may have an idea of what the problem is and how to fix it, but how do other stakeholders perceive the problem? What are their assumptions? What is their level of expertise? What are their values, behaviors, and cultural expectations? In short, you need to know “where they’re at.” Everyone has their own understanding of the world and appropriate design; however, effective communication, positive collaborative efforts, and successful teaching all depend in part on the ability to identify, understand, and respect these different perspectives.

    Mental Models Revisited

    The Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik (1943) described the mind as constructing “small scale models of reality” that it uses to reason, anticipate events, and explain the world. While we know considerably more, seventy years later, about cognitive mechanisms and structures, the simple notion of a mental model remains powerful. Our mental models are a reflection of how we have experienced the world. We have mental models of physical places such as our neighborhood, of processes such as erosion or the spread of infectious disease, and of abstract concepts such as environmental sustainability or democracy. Not only do mental models store our knowledge about the world, they are also the lens through which we view the world—they influence what we see and how we see it and whether or not new information will be processed and integrated with existing knowledge or disregarded as irrelevant.

    Like the view through any lens, however, our models are limited, offering but one of an infinite possibility of perspectives. Even though they are incomplete and idiosyncratic, mental models sure feel real, complete, and obvious to their owner. The strength of our mental models often leads us, even despite good intentions, to ignore or discount the perspectives of others. It is this inability to see things from another’s perspective that underlies much of the conflict in our world—whether between parents and children, disparate stakeholders collaborating on an environmental conservation plan, or members of different religious groups.

    Acknowledging that there are other perspectives out there is a start to facilitating human interaction. But making good decisions and encouraging reasonable behavior require not only acknowledging other perspectives but also truly understanding them. The benefits of being able to peer inside someone’s brain and see how they think about a particular topic would be many, including facilitating communication, encouraging meaningful action, and creating designs for people.

    Editors’ Comment: 3CM fosters communication by creating a tool for listening to and developing empathy for other people’s mental models, an issue central to many participatory challenges raised in other chapters (e.g., Gallagher, Chapter 8; Monroe, Chapter 14; Hollett, Chapter 15).

    Facilitating communication. When my eldest brother went off to college and requested Mom’s beloved pizza recipe, he got an index card with a list of ingredients for dough and toppings and a note that simply said, “Make as usual.” That’s one of the problems with well-learned mental models—they are so obvious that we often don’t stop to consider them. As R. Kaplan describes in Chapter 2 on model building, this lack of access to our own mental models, coupled with a lack of understanding of others’ mental models, is a recipe for ineffective communication. This can be particularly true when the givers and receivers of information differ in terms of their level or areas of expertise (for a discussion of the problems and pitfalls associated with expertise, see S. Kaplan, Chapter 3). In these contexts, having a clearer understanding of the mental models of all concerned would go a long way toward helping people appreciate their own biases and idiosyncratic views and also determining how best to frame information for those we’d like to share it with.

    Encouraging meaningful action. Asking the people you are hoping to engage with to share their mental models not only facilitates effective communication but also promotes collaboration and participation. Taking the time to understand where people are coming from shows respect for their knowledge and views, and explicitly externalizing their mental models about a particular topic is a good way to listen. Because sharing mental models is so important for meaningful participation, it is useful early and often; it can highlight areas of potential disagreement or common ground and will greatly increase the chances of effective collaboration among groups with varied backgrounds.

    Creating better designs for people. Those who design for others—whether products, processes, places, digital experiences, or interventions to change behavior—must be attuned to their users’ unique knowledge, perspectives, biases, and expectations. Human-centered design firms such as Design That Matters and IDEO have demonstrated that even a relatively small up-front investment in researching user and other stakeholder needs and perspectives can pay enormous dividends in terms of product success. The underutilized water distribution system mentioned in the introduction, for example, was redesigned and made more effective and accessible after taking time to talk to potential users and understand their perspectives, needs, and behaviors around water. Several of the chapters in this book also provide examples of how understanding one’s audience is essential in designing programs and experiences that aim to bring out the best in people, whether in designing landscapes (Grese, Chapter 19), engaging the public in resource management (Monroe, Chapter 14), training community leaders (Gallagher, Chapter 8), developing materials to help private landowners manage their forestland (Bradley & Cooper, Chapter 12), or facilitating dispute resolution (Hollett, Chapter 15).

    Measuring and Understanding Mental Models

    Given the many advantages of seeing things from another person’s point of view, why do we so often fail to do so? For one thing, it requires considerable cognitive effort—we must inhibit our own mental models, entertain a different way of thinking, and quiet any negative emotions associated with exploring a new perspective. Furthermore, even if we have the cognitive capacity to consider alternate perspectives, we may not have the appropriate foundational knowledge to begin to imagine how someone else—from a different culture, for example—sees the world. Clearly, we could use some help.

    How do villagers conceptualize their health care system? How do new mothers think about caring for their newborn children? How do people understand aspects of the financial market? Getting at these types of questions can be a challenge. For that matter, how do we conceptualize our health care system or understand the financial market? Not only is it difficult to imagine how others understand such complex issues, but people often have difficulty articulating what’s in their head. This is one reason that traditional methods, such as surveys and focus groups, often fail to yield important insights in these contexts. Getting beyond shallow or off-the-cuff responses requires a tool that facilitates exploration and discovery.

    The Conceptual Content Cognitive Map (3CM) is one such tool (Kearney & Kaplan, 1997). The 3CM process is a card-sorting technique with several unique features (for information on other card-sorting techniques, see Jonassen, Beissner, & Yacci, 1993) that (1) uses an opening scenario to ground and focus the participant by activating their mental model around the topic of interest; (2) emphasizes ownership of concepts by asking participants to either generate their own list of domain-relevant items or select from a broad set of items only those they understand and feel are relevant; (3) allows participants to categorize the cards based on what goes together in their minds, with no constraints on category size or number; and (4) encourages exploration and discovery as cards are generated and arranged into categories.

    Externalizing Mental Models: The 3CM Process

    The 3CM process was developed as a tool for measuring a person’s mental model about a specific topic or domain. This tool identifies both the content that people perceive as relevant and important and the structure or organization of that content (knowledge content + knowledge structure = a cognitive map, or mental model). The 3CM process is intuitive, has been successfully used with different age groups and cultures, requires no special technology, and can just as easily be administered in a rural Indonesian village as in a New York boardroom.

    The basic 3CM procedure is as follows:

    1. The relevant mental model is activated through a specific scenario along with several additional prompts.
    2. Participants identify the items that they perceive are important and relevant to the topic. These items are either self-generated (open-ended 3CM) or are selected from a list of possible items (structured 3CM). In either case, the emphasis is on discrete “things” rather than emotions or lengthy explanations.
    3. Each item is written on a separate card or sticky note.
    4. Participants group the cards into categories according to what goes together in their mind. No specific guidelines are given for organization or for number of categories.
    5. Finally, participants circle and label each category, indicating why they grouped those items together.
    6. Optionally, if it makes sense in the context of the research, participants can be asked to rate their individual cards based on importance or to indicate if they consider individual cards to be positive or negative.

    What results is a picture (or map, if you will) of an individual’s mental model (for an example, see Figure 16.1). We can use this map to understand what the individual knows about, what is perceived as important, and what might be missing. We can also use the map to understand how the individual perceives the bigger picture. For example, in a study of student teachers’ understanding of the animal kingdom, we asked students to select the animals they knew from a master list and then to group those animals according to how they went together. While the content of students’ mental models did not differ much (they were all familiar with roughly the same animals), the way their knowledge was organized differed drastically, indicating different ways of thinking about the animal kingdom. Some students, for example, grouped animals by classic scientific taxonomy (mammals, reptiles, etc.), while others grouped them into categories such as “slimy animals,” “dangerous animals,” and “pets.”

    Figure 16.1. A middle school student’s cognitive map of a healthy natural environment.
    Figure 16.1. A middle school student’s cognitive map of a healthy natural environment.

    Participants often report that 3CM is an engaging and enjoyable activity. Although it may be a relatively straightforward tool from their perspective, considerable thought and effort are needed in designing, implementing, and analyzing a 3CM. What follows is a step-by-step 3CM guide.

    Designing the 3CM Scenario

    The way the opening 3CM scenario is framed is the most important determinant of the method’s success. Ideally, you want to place people in a particular mental space and have them tell you the “things” that occupy that space. For this to be successful, the opening scenario must be (1) specific enough to activate the appropriate mental models; and (2) framed in a way that encourages participants to generate a list of items (concepts or things) rather than lengthy explanations or narratives.

    Getting the opening scenario right is often harder than it might seem. It is helpful to brainstorm multiple scenarios before deciding on the most appropriate one, and it is critical to pretest the scenario. Some example 3CM scenarios are shown in Table 16.1.

    TABLE 16.1 Examples of 3CM scenarios
    From a study of women’s perceptions of their housing, both prior to and after moving from sub-standard housing to a Habitat for Humanity home1:

    Imagine that a friend asks you: “What it is like for you and your family to live here in this house?” What would you say to them? What things would you mention? What things would be important for them to know?

    From a study comparing different stakeholders’ perspectives on good forest management2:

    I want you to think for a moment about your own perspective on “good forest management.” Now, imagine that you’re going to explain your perspective to someone who is unfamiliar with forest management issues and concepts. What are the things you would talk about? In other words, in your opinion, what things are important to consider or address when practicing good forest management? What are the components of good forest management?

    From a study of landowners’ perceptions of rural character3:

    Please think of a place that you would describe as having rural character. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What makes this place ‘stand-out’ in terms of rural character? In your mind, what attributes would describe rural character? Prompts:

    • Are there attributes related to open-space / nature that might be included in your description of rural character?
    • Are there attributes related to community or family that might be important to your description of rural character?
    • Are there attributes related to natural resource industries or agriculture that might be a part of your description of rural character?
    • Are there attributes that you would characterize as a threat to rural character?
    From a study of pediatric nurses’ perceptions of children’s pain and pain management4:

    Think for a moment about children’s pain. As you know, children’s pain management involves many different things. Let’s say that you are going to explain your thoughts about children’s pain and how to manage children’s pain to a nurse who is unfamiliar with it. What are the things you would tell that nurse about?

    1 Wells, N. M. (2005). Our housing, our selves: A longitudinal investigation of low-income women’s participatory housing experiences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(2),189-206.
    2 Kearney, A. R., & Bradley, G. (1998). Human dimensions of forest management: An empirical study of stakeholder perspectives. Urban Ecosystems, 2, 5-16.
    3 Tilt, J. H., Kearney, A. R., & Bradley, G. (2007). Understanding rural character: Cognitive and visual perceptions. Landscape and Urban Planning, 81(1-2), 14-26.
    4 Vincent, C. V. H. (2007). Nurses’ perceptions of children’s pain: A pilot study of cognitive representations. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 33(3), 290-301.

    An effective 3CM scenario will:

    1. Define the mental space. Introduce your topic in a couple of sentences and then tell participants that you are interested in their own unique view, or perspective, on the issue. Issues and topics should be framed with enough specificity that participants mentally engage with the topic in a meaningful way.
    2. Use an “imagine if . . .” scenario. Ask participants to talk about the issue as if explaining it to someone (a neutral but liked person, such as a friend) who is unfamiliar with the topic. This framing encourages the participant to be thorough and to avoid making assumptions and using jargon associated with expertise.
    3. Focus on things. Frame the question in terms of elements, characteristics, concepts, places, or things (as appropriate to the context).
    4. Use several prompting questions. After the initial question, it is useful to ask follow-up questions about the same issue in slightly different ways. The purpose of these prompting questions it to encourage people to think fully and deeply about the issue rather than lead them toward a specific response. If you are concerned that the prompting questions will bias responses, you can give participants a different color of sticky notes to record the items they generate in response to these questions.

    In the case of an open-ended 3CM, the items are generated by the individual participants. There are times, however, when one may want to implement a structured version of the 3CM, where participants are provided with an initial set of items. There are no hard-and-fast rules about when to implement a structured or open-ended 3CM, although in general, structured 3CMs lend themselves to larger sample sizes because the data generated through structured 3CMs are easier to analyze (presuming the researcher is familiar with the appropriate quantitative analysis tools, discussed below). Open-ended 3CMs are generally preferred in exploratory research, when dealing with smaller sample sizes, or when it is not possible to do the necessary legwork to generate an appropriate item list for a structured 3CM.

    The item list for a structured 3CM should capture the breadth of things that participants might feel are related to the issue. Items can come from subject matter experts but should also come from people who are representative of those one wishes to assess. For example, the list of sixty-eight items used in a study of students’ mental models of “a healthy natural environment” was based on the results of an open-ended 3CM used with a smaller representative sample and also included items that environmental educators perceived as important.

    A critical part of the structured 3CM is asking participants to choose from the master list only those items that they know about and think are important. We are, after all, interested in the content of the participant’s own mental model rather than what we might expect or wish was there. Participants should also be invited to add things that are not on the list. Generally, if the initial item list is sufficiently broad, participants make few, in any, additions. Although some may worry that participants would simply choose all items from a given list, in my experience this does not happen. I have done studies with lists of forty to seventy items and have found that participants generally choose less than half.

    The instructions for the structured 3CM need to be altered somewhat from those for the open-ended 3CM. For example, the structured 3CM used to assess mental models of healthy environments (Kearney, 2009) began with the following scenario:

    There are lots of different types of environments—the street where you live, nearby parks, the ocean-shore, forests, and farm land to name a few. Imagine that you have a friend who is just starting to study different environments in school. Your friend has heard that some environments are “healthy” and some are not, but she/he is not sure how to tell if an environment is healthy. Your friend asks you for help—she/he wants to know what you think.

    I want you to close your eyes for a moment and think about what a healthy natural environment means to you. What do you think of when you think about a “healthy natural environment”? What would that environment look like? What would it feel like? What would be happening in that environment? Remember, there is no right or wrong way to think; I’m just interested in your perceptions of healthy natural environments.

    Think about . . .

    What things would you expect to find in a healthy natural environment?

    Are there other things you would expect to observe in a healthy natural environment?

    What is going on in that natural environment that lets you know that it is healthy?

    Is there anything else about the natural environment that lets you know it is healthy?

    The instructions then went on to say:

    To help you out, I’m handing out a list of things that might be important to you in describing how you think about healthy natural environments. You can use as many of the concepts on this sheet as you think are relevant and important, but you probably won’t be using them all. It’s a big list of things and only some of them will fit your own image of healthy natural environments. When deciding which concepts to use, ask yourself two questions: 1) Do you know enough about it to be able to explain it to a friend (we certainly don’t expect you to know about all these things)? and 2) Does it fit your own image of, or perspective on, healthy natural environments? Next, for each concept that you think is relevant and important, write it down on a separate sticky note. If there are things that you think are important, but that are not listed here, you can also write them down on sticky notes.

    Finally, participants were instructed as follows:

    When you have thought of everything you can, I want you to look through all of your sticky notes and then group your stickies based on how you would share your thoughts about healthy natural environments with your friend. What things go together in your mind? What things would you talk about together? Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this, just put them into categories, or groups, that make sense to you. You don’t have to group them based on the questions.

    Once you are done with that, I’d like you to circle each group and then label, or name, each group based on why the sticky notes in that group go together.

    The Right Frame of Mind

    Because 3CM requires active participation, it helps considerably if participants are in the right frame of mind. Hitting the right tone with the opening scenario will go a long way toward engaging and focusing participants, but in addition there are several other things to consider.

    Provide ample time. As Duvall (Chapter 20) notes in his chapter on engagement, exploration is enhanced when participants are given ample time to complete tasks (so they do not feel rushed) and are not overly managed or instructed while doing the task. I have found that people generally complete a 3CM task in twenty to thirty minutes (depending on the topic and level of expertise), but it is wise to allow additional time, particularly when working with a group.

    Editors’ Comment: A great example of the affective nature of our relationship with information.

    Reassure participants. In his discussion of cognitive clarity, Ivancich (Chapter 5) explains both that people often fear humiliation or embarrassment over a perceived lack of knowledge and that they do not generally like having their mental models challenged. When people feel vulnerable (Do I know enough to do this? What if I don’t get it right?) or defensive, they are unlikely to fully engage in the 3CM process. Helping ensure the right frame of mind requires assuring participants that 3CM is not a test, that there are many different ways of seeing the issue, and that there is certainly not a “right” answer. In addition, participants should be told how their 3CM map will be used and with whom it will (or will not) be shared.

    Choose an appropriate time and setting. Completing tasks such as 3CM requires focus, and as Sullivan (Chapter 4) makes clear, people’s attentional resources are often in short supply. Engaging participants when they have adequate stores of directed attention will improve the outcome of a 3CM task. To the extent that it can be controlled, 3CM should be administered when participants are less likely to be fatigued (e.g., in the morning or after a restorative break rather than at the end of a workday or after a stressful meeting) and conducted in a restorative environment (or at least one free from distractions).

    Materials and Mechanics

    Although it is possible to complete card sorts on the computer, I have had the most success with a low-technology administration that uses nothing more than a pad of small (e.g., 1.5˝ × 2˝) sticky notes, a large (e.g., 11˝ × 17˝) sheet of paper, and a pen or pencil. With the physical materials participants are able to manipulate the notes, play with different arrangements, and organize cards spatially. These materials are also inexpensive, portable, and easily scalable.

    3CM can be administered one-on-one, in small or large groups, or even by mail. Limitations on group size are based on how much assistance participants might require and how much privacy they might desire. I have had success doing 3CMs with large groups (e.g., thirty or more people), as long as each person has ample room to work, and also through the mail, where I have sent a packet of materials to each participant and asked them to mail back their results, being sure to tape their sticky notes down so they did not become dislodged.

    The Importance of Pretesting

    The importance of pretesting when developing a 3CM task cannot be overstated. Both the opening scenario and the complete set of instructions should be tested—first on yourself and then on a small sample of people who are similar to the people you are interested in assessing. Ask yourself: Does the opening scenario make sense? Is it tapping into the right domain? Is it specific enough? Are participants able to complete the task with the instructions provided? Are the materials and setting you are using appropriate? Are the data that are generated (in terms of items and item organization) on topic? Are they at a useful level of specificity? Pretesting can take several iterations.


    There are times when the value of 3CM is in the doing and in the inspection of individual maps; in these cases data analysis may not be required. For instance, if one is working with a small group interested in learning more about each other’s perspectives, it may be enough to take the group through a 3CM exercise and then post the resulting maps as a way of sharing perspectives and providing a basis for subsequent discussion.

    Other times, a 3CM may be used simply to prime people for considering other perspectives. I was once in a small forestry field office administering a 3CM task to a longtime forester (let’s call him John) around the topic of good forest management. Initially, John was skeptical of the process and sat across the desk with his arms folded while I explained the procedure. Once he began generating and sorting cards, however, he became quite involved and when finished declared that, yep, that’s the way it was, and he couldn’t imagine that anyone could argue with that—could they? Half an hour later as I was facilitating the 3CM with another person in the office, John repeatedly strolled by the open door on his way to one fabricated errand after another. Finally, he sidled through the doorway saying that he just had to come and see if there was another way of looking at the issue.

    Although simply displaying and sharing idiosyncratic maps can have great value, more often it is useful to summarize the 3CM data from multiple participants and present it in a meaningful way. There are a number of strategies for the analysis of 3CM data, depending on the goals of the study. One may want to summarize the type and frequency of item selection, qualitatively identify patterns in category generation, or perform a more quantitative analysis.


    As you can imagine by looking at Figure 16.1, running a 3CM, even with a modest-sized group, will yield a large amount of rich data, so much data in fact that analysis can quickly become overwhelming. One could, for example, perform a detailed analysis of map content (the items that were generated or selected) and begin to explore differences and similarities between people or among groups. Similarly, one could perform a detailed analysis of map structure (the categories into which items were organized). One could look at the data through a qualitative content analysis or through quantitative analysis techniques, such as hierarchical clustering or multidimensional scaling (MDS) (Aldenderfer & Blashfield, 1984; Kruskal & Wish, 1978).

    It is important to remember that a focused, thoughtful, and limited approach to data analysis is almost always more useful than trying to do everything. Revisiting the original intent of 3CM before delving into the data is an effective way to stay focused and to prioritize different possible analyses. Ask yourself:

    • What questions do you most want to answer through analysis? Be as specific as possible. For example, are you interested in:
      • what the most (or least) frequently mentioned items were?
      • how many people included item X in their map?
      • how many people did not include item Y in their map?
      • what the most/least common categories are?
      • what misconceptions or gaps in understanding the maps suggest?
      • whether there are differences among groups X and Y in terms of the items they included or categories they generated?
    • What level of analysis would be most useful and most appropriate given your intended audience? Do you need to look at map content (i.e., the items included) in detail, or are you more interested in the overall structure of the maps (i.e., the categories)? If you are interested in content and decide, for example, to perform a content analysis of map items to see how many people feel that wildlife habitat issues are an important part of forest management, is it enough to know how many people included any item related to wildlife habitat in their maps, or is it useful to count “fish habitat” and “bird habitat” separately? Is it good enough to know that a participant included at least one item related to habitat, or do you need to know how many items the participant included related to habitat?
    • What type of analysis do you have the resources to perform (in terms of time, number of maps, and technical expertise)?

    There is no one correct way to approach and analyze 3CM data, because the intent of the research and the level of detail needed from the analysis can vary greatly from one project to another. Answering the questions above will provide you with a road map for data analysis. And although specific details on performing a content analysis or quantitative analyses are beyond the scope of this chapter, this information is readily available.

    3CM in Practice

    Example 1: Sharing Perspectives and Facilitating Communication

    Lindsey Amtmann (1996) was tasked with assisting two planning committees debating wild and scenic river (WSR) designation for two rivers running through federal land. Such committee interactions are notoriously contentious because the group typically consists of individuals with widely divergent backgrounds, perspectives, and interests. Amtmann realized that group interaction may benefit from a sharing of perspectives, and she used an open-ended 3CM to do so.

    Sample. Each committee, consisting of ten individuals selected by the secretary of agriculture, represented a number of stakeholder groups, including township government, commercial timber interests, environmental groups, and federal land agencies.

    Process. Because of the potentially contentious nature of the topic, Amtmann conducted the 3CM with each of the twenty committee members individually, using the standard sticky notes and large sheets of paper. The following scenario was used:

    Imagine you are explaining WSRs to a friend who doesn’t know anything about them, who doesn’t know what it’s all about. What are the things that you would consider in explaining WSRs?

    • What things might you like to do on WSRs?
    • What’s important for you to be able to do?
    • What might you expect to see on a WSR?
    • What is valuable to you about a WSR?

    Analysis and presentation. Based on a qualitative analysis of the individual maps, a composite map was created for each committee that depicted the larger problem space, as viewed by the group as a whole (because of tensions among some of the committee members, individual maps were not shared). A group feedback session was then held in which the composite map was displayed and carefully explained, noting areas of commonality and divergence among committee members (without using names or other direct identifiers). This map served as a springboard for further dialogue.

    What was learned? After the committee meetings, Amtmann assessed the contribution of the 3CM task on the collaborative process. Committee members indicated that the composite maps gave them insight into the range of perspectives that existed, helped them to visualize the larger problem space, and allowed them to see where their own view fit within this space. Members tended to find this style of feedback effective in clarifying their own perspectives, identifying key areas of concern to the group as a whole, and opening up new ways of thinking. It also provided a framework upon which to base a discussion and allowed members to externalize the debate, discussing and criticizing issues rather than people.

    Example 2: Promoting Participation and Engagement

    When a design group started working with the staff and clients of a cancer center to develop plans for three different rooftop gardens, they quickly became frustrated at what they perceived was an inability for staff and clients to participate in the design process (and therefore became frustrated with their own inability to design maximally appropriate and useful garden spaces). Part of the problem was that the nondesigners were unfamiliar with design language and processes and thus had difficulty expressing their ideas and desires during initial focus groups. I worked with the group to develop and implement an open-ended 3CM so that the designers could involve their clients in a way that was comfortable and meaningful for them.

    Sample. Twenty-three people completed the 3CM, including center staff and clients (cancer patients, survivors, and family members).

    Process. Packets were created that included a 3CM instruction sheet, a pad of sticky notes, and an 11˝ × 17˝ folded sheet of paper. Our contacts at the center distributed the packets to staff members and invited adult center clients to take and complete a packet. At the end of two weeks, we collected the completed packets.

    The following 3CM scenario was used:

    Everyone will likely have a different image of the “ideal garden”—we are interested in what your personal image is. Think about your idea of the ideal garden space at the center. How would you characterize this space if you were describing it to someone else? Think about the following:

    • What types of activities would the space accommodate or encourage?
    • How would the space make you feel?
    • What elements would the garden contain?
    • How else would you describe or characterize the garden?

    Analysis and presentation. We were interested both in the map content and in whether the map categories suggested different garden types. Individual maps were reviewed, and a list of items mentioned by at least two people was created. Maps were then coded using this list, and the data were analyzed with hierarchical clustering analysis. (Note that a purely qualitative analysis would have been equally appropriate in this context.) The resulting clusters (shown in Table 16.2) were presented at a meeting with designers, center staff, and interested center clients. The clusters were presented in a very simple format and were purposely not labeled, because part of the group discussion was centered on what types of gardens the 3CM results might suggest. The group was simply told that “These results indicate how the group, as a whole, tended to categorize their ‘ideal garden’ characteristics and may suggest different types of gardens.” At the end of the meeting, there was agreement that the design process should be focused around three different types of gardens, one for each courtyard: Contemplative/Zen (Cluster 1), Restorative /Remembrance (based on Cluster 2), and Social (Cluster 3). Cluster 4 was viewed as general constraints and characteristics that should apply across the three gardens.

    Cluster 1Cluster 2
    • “zen” landscape (e.g., sand, water, rocks)
    • solitude/ quiet
    • space to meditate / reflect
    • private
    • peaceful
    • sound (particularly water sounds)
    • bamboo
    • cozy / enclosed
    • intimate
    • warm (e.g., wind breakers)
    • screened from rest of neighborhood
    • opportunities for interaction in garden (e.g., growing plants, adding art)
    • engaging the senses
    Cluster 3Cluster 4
    • place for quiet recreation (e.g., chess, checkers)
    • place to socialize in small groups
    • place to socialize in large groups
    • space for group discussion/meetings
    • space for outdoor classes (e.g., art, exercise)
    • sense of playfulness
    • space to perform rituals/ceremony
    • moveable / adaptable space
    • accessible to all
    • lots of greenery
    • range of textures
    • range of colors
    • changing with the seasons
    • scent / smells / aromatic plants
    • wildlife
    • butterfly plants
    • places to sit
    • shade
    • sun
    • low maintenance

    What was learned? The 3CM process provided a comfortable way to involve clients in the initial visioning of the garden spaces. The clients felt heard, and the designers were able to look beyond their own initial assumptions and find an appropriate language to bridge abstract concepts and concrete design. Based on the 3CM results, designers organized themselves into three groups, each focusing on a specific garden type. Mini design charrettes were then held with staff and clients to further the input and design process for each garden space.

    Example 3: Program Assessment and Design

    An environmental education center wanted to know how children’s understanding of healthy natural environments changed as a result of attending their four-day camp and how the curriculum could be enhanced to more clearly communicate key environmental concepts.

    Sample. The sample of camp participants included seventy-one fourth- through sixth-grade students.

    Process. Because of the large sample size, a structured 3CM was used. The sixty-eight items used in the structured 3CM were based on a series of open-ended 3CMs conducted previously with similar students (both before and after camp attendance) as well as input from camp staff. The 3CM scenario and questions are provided above, in the section on the structured 3CM. Cognitive mapping was done both at the beginning and end of the camp and was administered by camp instructors to groups of eight to twelve students at a time. Prior to the first 3CM, instructors briefly helped students work through an example 3CM task on another topic (what their school cafeteria is like) in order to familiarize them with the 3CM process.

    Analysis. The pre- and postmaps were analyzed with hierarchical clustering (Figure 16.2). A subsequent qualitative comparison explored differences in map items and categories, pre- and postcamp.

    What was learned? The 3CM data showed that students’ understanding of healthy natural environments did become richer and more complex as a result of the camp. Staff members were able to determine that messages regarding stewardship and interrelationships among ecosystem components were getting across. They were also able to see that although students’ awareness of new concepts introduced during the camp (e.g., abiotic elements, producers, decomposers) was increased (and separate measures did indeed indicate a large increase in students’ ability to define these terms), many students tended to group these concepts in an isolated category, indicating that they may not be fully integrating them into their understanding of natural environments. These results provided evidence for the camp’s effectiveness while also giving insight to center teachers and education staff in terms of how to improve the curriculum.

    Figure 16.2. Pre-and postcamp hierarchical clustering results based on seventy-one students and the items chosen by at least 15% of students. Circles indicate subgroupings within the larger category. Items in all caps were chosen by >50% of students, first letter cap was chosen by 25–49%, and all lowercase was chosen by 15–24%. The plus sign denotes items that did not show up in the precamp map but did in the postcamp map; the minus sign denotes items that were in the precamp map but were dropped in the postcamp map.
    Figure 16.2. Pre-and postcamp hierarchical clustering results based on seventy-one students and the items chosen by at least 15% of students. Circles indicate subgroupings within the larger category. Items in all caps were chosen by >50% of students, first letter cap was chosen by 25–49%, and all lowercase was chosen by 15–24%. The plus sign denotes items that did not show up in the precamp map but did in the postcamp map; the minus sign denotes items that were in the precamp map but were dropped in the postcamp map.

    3CM is a valuable tool for helping to meet some of the fundamental informational needs posited by RPM, particularly those related to model building and meaningful action. Hence, 3CM is widely applicable to programs and projects that seek to bring out the best in people. Specifically, 3CM can help in the following crucial areas.

    Gain insight into one’s own mental models. Basu (Chapter 6) makes the important points in his chapter that fostering our own reasonableness is every bit as important as fostering reasonableness in others and that bringing out the best in ourselves depends, in no small part, on self-understanding. 3CM can help in this regard. An unexpected benefit of the 3CM technique has been participants’ discovery of aspects of their understanding of which they were previously unaware. Participants completing 3CM tasks consistently comment on their satisfaction with the procedure and on the utility of the process in helping them clarify their own views.

    Foster understanding and communication among one another. A basic premise of RPM, and a recurring theme in the chapters of this book, is that effective communication depends on understanding the differences in the mental models of information providers and receivers (R. Kaplan, Chapter 2). As the many examples in this chapter illustrate, 3CM can be a useful tool for externalizing mental models and uncovering differences and similarities among models.

    Sidestep some of the pitfalls of expertise. Using a tool such as 3CM can help experts overcome some of the assumptions and biases that are a function of their well-learned models (discussed by S. Kaplan, Chapter 3) and help ensure that their efforts are appropriately targeted to their audience.

    Foster interest and enhance engagement. The 3CM technique is a hands-on way to explore one’s own knowledge, and many 3CM participants find the process engaging. This engagement can, in turn, increase interest in finding out what others think (as the anecdote with John illustrates) and enhance participation in discussions or collaborative work that follow from the 3CM data (as Amtmann’s work with the wild and scenic river committees illustrates).

    Jump-start participation. Sharing one’s knowledge and ideas through a tool such as 3CM can be a meaningful way for people to participate in a project, even when (as in the cancer center rooftop gardens project) they initially feel that they don’t have the expertise to meaningfully contribute. Subsequent endeavors that respect these initial efforts (such as the group discussion based on the garden types that emerged from the 3CM analysis) can build on this early participation by giving participants a sense of ownership over the project and helping them extend their mental models so that further participation is facilitated (for example, participation in the ensuing design charrettes).

    Direct actions toward the meaningful. Building an understanding of local needs, knowledge, and ideas through tools such as 3CM (or even better, through early and repeated use of tools such as 3CM) can help program leaders more effectively design and target their actions, thereby helping ensure that their efforts have the intended effects.

    Concluding Thoughts

    Many people who read about or use 3CM are taken with the technique as a research tool because it provides a concrete and readily understandable illustration of the way a person thinks and is relatively easy to administer. One of the unintended side effects of the compelling nature of 3CM, however, is that people start wanting to use it everywhere, even in contexts where it is not appropriate. The 3CM technique is geared toward capturing a snapshot of a person’s unique knowledge and understanding of a specific place, process, or issue. It is not an appropriate tool for determining whether or not people have what we consider to be correct factual knowledge or for determining what their attitudes, preferences, and values are. If you want to understand people’s attitudes toward a sustainability program, gauge how they would react to different park designs, or determine the value they place on different community characteristics, there are a number of assessment tools that may be appropriate (such as surveys, photo questionnaires, focus groups, and interviews), but 3CM is not one of them.

    If, on the other hand, you are interested in where people are coming from in terms of their particular perspective and understanding of an issue, 3CM can be a valuable tool. Programs and strategies focused on involving community members in solving their own social and environmental problems, such as those described by Bardwell (Chapter 7) and Monroe (Chapter 14), are good candidates for the inclusion of 3CM. Both authors argue that building a shared vision, or understanding, of the problem is a key factor in the success of collaborative efforts. Toward that end, 3CM could be useful in several ways: in helping identify gaps in knowledge and providing insight on how to frame new information, in providing an accessible way for group members to share their perspectives with one another, and in providing a picture of the larger problem space as a starting point for work on developing a shared vision.

    Assessing and understanding people’s mental models can’t solve all our problems. In the context of collaboration, for example, both Bardwell (Chapter 7) and Monroe (Chapter 14) make it clear that understanding one another and building a shared vision are but two of many requirements for effective collaborative work. Indeed, in any effort to bring out the best in people there are many factors to consider beyond differences in perspective and knowledge. However, understanding where people are at is a critical—and challenging—step in helping to pinpoint problems, improve communication, open avenues for participation, and increase the likelihood that programs and products designed for people will succeed.


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