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2. The Joys and Struggles of Building Mental Models
Snippets of conversations overheard in the supermarket:
Child to child: “Let’s pretend that . . .”
Parent to child: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times . . .”
Two adults: “It’s right across the street from . . . after you turn left at that corner where . . .”
Different as they may seem, these are all examples of efforts to share mental models.
Each of us owns a great treasure that far surpasses any technological wonder on the market. Like most sophisticated devices it is not foolproof, yet it is meant to be used continuously over many decades, without upgrades. It guides us and we rely on it, but we have surprisingly little awareness of its capabilities and foibles.
Our treasure is a storehouse of an enormous amount of information. It gives us access to our past and even enables us to conjure up the future. It can reveal things we had not realized were available. It can also provide indications of whether the information is desirable or undesirable, reassuring or threatening. Despite being such an astounding warehouse, it lacks an inventory, search window, or even a site map. Nor does it come with troubleshooting instructions or repair information.
What is this treasure we each possess? As you might have surmised, it is our brain, the home of our mental models—the thousands of simplified, incomplete, interrelated frameworks that are the basis of our understanding, reasoning, prediction, and action (Craik, 1943; Jones, Ross, Lynam, Perez, & Leitch, 2011). These mental models cannot be purchased, borrowed, or bestowed. There is only one way to get them: we have to build them ourselves, something we all do starting in infancy and continuously throughout our lives. While the process is arduous, we are deeply dedicated builders with intense desire to put our models to use.
This chapter is about the joys and struggles of building and sharing our mental models—one of the three domains of the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) (Basu & Kaplan, Chapter 1). The joys are many; we could not be so dependent on building mental models if they were not a source of delight and enlightenment. Getting clarity is itself pleasurable (Ivancich, Chapter 5), and effectively sharing knowledge with others provides great satisfaction. At the same time, however, building mental models entails many challenges and struggles with sweeping impacts that are often overlooked. A great deal of confusion and helplessness as well as hostility and animosity—unreasonableness—could be avoided if we consider mental models from the perspective of the intended recipients of information.
Before tackling the issues of building our mental models and sharing them with others, we need to discuss the lifeline of our existence and the stuff of the mental models: information. We will then look at how we build mental models, since they are the mechanism for storing, accessing, and using information. Building mental models, however, is dependent on the exchange of information, a process that is fraught with obstacles related both to the mental models we have and those we lack. The chapter then turns to ways that sharing information can be more compatible with the mental models that comprise our awesome treasure.
The basis or essence of mental models is information. Information is the stuff we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. It surrounds us constantly wherever we are, whether we realize it or not. We speak information. We think information. We crave information. Information is the source of bonds and battles, secrets and slights, delights and dismays.
Our dependence on information is a fundamental human commonality. Despite that, however, our efforts to share information are frequently fumbling. All too often the intended procedures for information sharing—education, communication, participation, and collaboration—are not only ineffective but even detrimental. The major goal of this chapter is to examine why that is the case and, more important, how to navigate the differences between the mental models of the information providers and of the information recipients in order to enhance information exchange or sharing.
There are some striking contrasts to consider. Information can be enriching and wondrous; it can also lead to a colossal sense of futility and helplessness. The same information may seem quite different from the perspective of the intended recipient as opposed to the one offering it, suggesting that how the information is conveyed can make a difference. The same information can also be received very differently depending on whether or not it fits with what we know or expect. And if it does fit, there are issues of whether it is dismissed as uninteresting or welcomed as confirming or expanding what we know. The same information can also find different reception depending on our motivation, emotion, and trust of the source.
At the heart of many of these contrasts is familiarity. Familiarity develops from experience and is a function of the mental models that we possess. Let us turn, then, to how mental models are developed.
Building Mental Models
Infants start out not knowing a great deal. Two-year-olds, however, know a huge amount more. And by the time they are four years old many children can tell stories! In those first few years the steady growth in what a child knows, can remember, and can imagine is astounding. In those early days, weeks, and months children learn to recognize innumerable patterns that surround them. The patterns encompass vastly different categories, including objects (such as a spoon or chopsticks), faces and voices, different people and (other) animals, places, tasks, restrictions (“don’t touch”) and many other actions, abstract concepts, and ideas. The patterns repeat, but because they occur in ever-changing contexts they are not identical, offering many variations. Many of the contexts are themselves patterns that repeat, with variations. Feeding time, for example, is a context that may occur in different locations and with different people present. The spoon may hold different foods (other patterns); it may emerge from different containers—more patterns. The person holding the spoon may have the same face but different expressions (patterns for emotions). Dogs in the child’s world may vary in size, shape, color, and disposition—many more patterns. While the patterns differ across regions and cultures, pattern recognition is part of the human neural hardware (Basu, Chapter 6).
Mental models are formed from these repetitive experiences. Through repeated experiences we gain familiarity. Being familiar with something—an object, person, environment, or whatever—is akin to having a model, or map, of it stored in our head. Like other models, these are compact and incomplete relative to what they stand for. The models can form connections to other models even if what they represent is not present. For example, a child can invite another child to pretend that one of them is the mom and the other is the baby, because they can call on mental models of these concepts. By combining mental models in their imaginary playfulness, they may create patterns they have never actually experienced, and in time these too may become mental models. Thus, when these children play together again they could re-create their imaginary world, change roles, or continue with their fantasies.
It is difficult to appreciate the vast capabilities of our mental models. The British cyberneticist K. J. W. Craik (1943, p. 61) captured the values of such mental models in a few words:
If the organism carries a ‘small-scale model’ of external reality and of its own possible actions in its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, utilize the knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and future, and in every way to react in a much fuller, safer, and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it.
The statement is succinct, but the range of actions and possibilities embedded in this description is nothing short of awesome.
Whether we call them mental models, cognitive maps (Kearney & Kaplan, 1997), internal representations (Golledge, 1999), or schemas (Thagard, 2005), they all refer to interconnected neural pathways in our brains that result from repeated experiences, not only in childhood but throughout our lives. “Models” and “maps” are helpful analogies; however, they may not sufficiently convey the enormous efficiency afforded by the networks and hierarchical structures among our mental models. As the examples in Kearney (Chapter 16) richly illustrate, a mental model is part of a network of many mental models while maintaining its separate and discrete identity as well. Our mental model for “plants” can include a great variety of species. At the same time, “plants” may be part of a mental model such as “healthy natural environment” that includes other concepts such as “stewardship.” Similarly, we have hierarchies of “maps” of physical places—even if we have not directly experienced the places.
While we have mental maps for “home” and “neighborhood” and many other places along the way, when considering the route between home and the train station we do not call upon these. Even if we are conversant with the architectural styles of train stations around the world, we “ignore” these when considering our route to the local station. We might, however, visualize (i.e., by using our mental model) the local station in deciding where best to access it depending on the particular circumstances. We also tend to “ignore” the many ideas that are obvious to us. One of the great challenges in sharing information is overcoming the false assumption that what is obvious to us is obvious to our audience.
Experience is thus essential for creating our mental models. Some of the experience may be indirect: we have never met the big bad wolf or possibly any wolf at all, have never seen many places we know a great deal about, and are able to explain concepts that are highly abstract. However, we have all also experienced situations where repeated exposure to information may not be enough to create a mental model. Some mental models (perhaps trying to learn a language or musical instrument) resist our considerable efforts, while others seem to be easier to build even if the experience is indirect.
Consider this situation: You have the window seat, and as the plane is flying toward the airport you see a meandering river, lots of green open areas, farmland edged by trees, and clusters of settlement along a network of roads, including residential homes on large lots with many trees and some subdivisions with distinct driveways to each garage. You are seeing a miniature world—a “big picture” that is all in one view, yet many details are discernible. Miniatures facilitate model building by increasing understanding. They are vivid and concrete and quickly offer a sense of how the parts—for which we already have a network of mental models—relate to each other. Even reading this scenario (an indirect experience) can facilitate creating a mental model of this window-view environment.
Miniatures are compelling in many situations, whether they are of planned communities or our own neighborhood, a high-rise building or a dollhouse, a rendition of a part of the human anatomy, or a diorama displaying other cultures or ecosystems. Like mental models, the miniatures are necessarily simplifications and abstractions of reality. Even when they lack much detail they offer a bigger picture, a way to comprehend something that would be difficult to “see.”
In many other situations, by contrast, building mental models is far more cumbersome. Not only is a “bigger picture” often lacking, it may be difficult to fathom what pieces would accrue to that picture. We are bombarded with information that is discrepant or contradictory, irrelevant or disconnected, intriguing but unimportant, essential but confusing. We are surrounded by information but have difficulty extracting what to heed. We are talked at but have little desire to listen, or even if we care about the information (such as directions we requested), we cannot follow despite valiant effort. We recognize the importance of something we hear about but quickly forget it nonetheless, even if it was the proverbial “thousand times.” Achieving understanding can be daunting and frustrating.
Exploration as a Path to Understanding
Mental models can only develop through our own efforts. Perhaps “effort” is an inappropriate term, since so much model building occurs without our awareness or conscious effort. Awareness, however, gives no assurance that the effort will be successful. We can be aware of information that is offered—hearing a talk and understanding what is said at the moment—but the understanding may leave no traces, figuratively or mentally. Understanding is more likely to succeed when we play an active part, when we are engaged in the process.
In the child’s world, play involves being engaged with the objects and their context. Play provides repetition as well as variation, leading to adventures that enhance experience and help build mental models. As adults, when we explore a three-dimensional model of a proposed development or examine the placement of the movable parts of a model of the human body, we may not call it “play,” but the outcomes are similar with respect to the creation of mental models. That is not to say, however, that exploration requires manipulating physical entities. It can, for example, involve manipulating imagined elements, as is true in children’s “let’s pretend” play or in asking “what if.” In such approaches we extrapolate from our established mental models (i.e., from what is already familiar) to find out if they are applicable to the current quest. In our effort to reinterpret, or reframe, a problem or situation, we are exploring whether our existing mental models might contain useful analogues or helpful hints. What is highly familiar can thus be the source of novelty and new experiences.
Explorations are not limited to our existing cognitive structures. Often they entail other sources for information and insights, as is evident from many of the chapters in this volume (e.g., Bardwell, Chapter 7; Duvall, Chapter 20; Gallagher, Chapter 8; Ginsburg, Chapter 9; A. Kaplan, Chapter 17; Wells & Pillemer, Chapter 10). However we go about it, exploring expands opportunities for incorporating mental models and forming new connections among them. Because this is an active process that depends on our own cognitive structures, it has a greater likelihood of creating understanding in a way that sticks (Heath & Heath, 2007).
Obstacles and Impediments
Exploration is often satisfying and rewarding even on a small scale and with little effort. Figuring things out can be exhilarating. Learning new skills is often exciting. The desire to expand our knowledge, gain new information, and put what we know to use is seemingly boundless. We are, after all, a species that thrives on information and cares deeply about it.
Despite the many joys of exploration, there are also challenges and enigmas. Although people seem to have an insatiable desire to learn new things, there are times when they ignore or even disdain new information. We have all had to deal with people who ask questions (i.e., seek information) but then fail to listen to the answers. Alas, we have likely been among these wayward people ourselves.
These issues raise many questions: Why do we initiate an exploration and then ignore the answer? Why do we sometimes welcome information and at other times turn a deaf ear? Why are we willing to do some things over and over again but complain about being bored when something sounds vaguely familiar? Included among the answers to these questions are that people are all different, might be tired, can be moody, or that other weighty matters dominate their thoughts and current capacity. Yet despite these characteristics, many efforts to explore and understand—to build our mental models—persist and even thrive.
Even with years of experience creating mental models as well as sharing information with others, people are rarely cognizant of doing either of these or of the differences between them. We are, however, far more likely to be aware when we feel confused, helpless, overwhelmed, and frustrated than when our well-intended efforts may cause such emotions in others. We may feel quite justified to ignore information offered us but be annoyed when others ignore the information we offer. We may find our enthusiastic tales of things that happened to be received apathetically, and despite our concerted attempts to simplify our explanations, others may find the information we provide to be way over their heads.
Information sharing is treacherous, exciting, bewildering, complex, and inescapable. As we have seen, familiarity plays a key role in model building, as our models can only be created through experience. At the same time, however, familiarity can be detrimental to information sharing. The next two sections examine information sharing in terms of these two themes: familiarity and venturing beyond familiarity, respectively. The final section discusses some topics that cut across information-sharing efforts. These are not only central to model building but are vital to other components of RPM as well.
Building on Familiarity
The tendency to favor information that supports our beliefs or perspective has been called “confirmation bias.” Another way to think of our preexisting viewpoint is that it is highly familiar. Humans are indeed heavily biased toward the familiar (Bardwell, 1991). In building our own mental models we continually rely on past experiences, and these in turn were vital in building prior mental models. Through its role in creating mental models, familiarity reduces confusion, provides guidance, and makes us more predictable to ourselves and to others; using Craik’s (1943, p. 61) words, familiarity permits us to act and “react in a much fuller, easier, and more competent manner.” It is no wonder that we so often resist information that does not fit with our familiar models! Not only have we relied on them in the past, but they are interconnected with many other mental models that are also the consequence of numerous repetitions and experiences. Viewed in that way, spurning new ideas that are contrary to what we know or believe is often adaptive.
That’s the story from the perspective of information recipients. Information sharing, however, also raises the perspective of the information providers. They too have well-honed cognitive structures built from vast experience and are heavily biased toward what is familiar for them. Perhaps they spent years acquiring professional credentials and are recognized as authorities on a given topic. Their knowledge and deep understanding of an issue can be vital to a solution, but this has its own challenges. (S. Kaplan, Chapter 3, discusses many of the foibles that accompany the process of acquiring expertise.)
Information sharing must build on what is familiar. That familiarity, however, must be the recipients’, not the information providers’.
This may sound sensible and straightforward, but nonetheless it is contrary to a substantial amount of information-sharing behavior. It is amusing to consider Ellerman’s (2000) suggestion that the information provider is a helper while the recipient is the doer, given the many contexts where recipients might wonder about the helpfulness of the information they have been offered. We have all attended talks that were insensitive to our connection to the topic or likely future capacity to use the information. It is hardly unusual to have fine-tuned definitions introduce a topic even though the listener or reader cannot tune into them. As Warburton, Marshall, Warburton, and Gooch (2005) showed in an analysis of feedback from environmental volunteers, the issue was not one of sharing information but rather that the material was “too complex, too voluminous, or too technical” (p. 28) for the intended users. This undermined both understanding and attempts to explore on their own terms. As a result, the efforts to inform reduced the volunteers’ sense of competence and diminished their ability to be doers and make a difference.
By the same token, however, we have all been on the other side of the equation. As information providers, we are often inclined to build on our own familiarity without considering the recipient. We may find it boring to talk about what is already familiar to us, yet we are eager to share our knowledge and offer solutions. When we are discouraged that our efforts to be helpful would go nowhere, we might tell ourselves that the information we included was useful and that we explained it clearly, made sure to put it in context, and related it to the rest of the material. If the listeners had paid closer attention, surely they would have benefited greatly! But along with expertise comes a bundle of predicaments (S. Kaplan, Chapter 3). Among these is what Heath and Heath (2007) refer to as “the curse of knowledge”: “When you get around to sharing the Answer, you’ll tend to communicate as if your audience were you” (p. 245, emphasis in original).
Editors’ Comment: Listening and respect, fundamental to RPM, are reflected in a number of the chapters, including listening to one’s constituents (Gallagher, Chapter 8; Monroe, Chapter 14) and to oneself (Basu, Chapter 6) as well as helping others learn how to listen (Kearney, Chapter 16; Grese, Chapter 19).
Some experts, fortunately, are able to take their knowledge and share it effectively. Isn’t that what good mentoring and useful coaching are about? As Gawande (2011), an experienced surgeon, shows in his discussion of seeking a coach to further improve his skill as a surgeon, it takes more than a keen eye and astute observation to turn the “curse of knowledge” to helpful guidance. The key difference is how the information is communicated. Lee, Dennis, and Campbell (2007) offer a number of suggestions in their “guide for mentors.” Respect and the “art of listening” are certainly essential, especially when offering criticism. Equally indispensible are sensitivity to the recipients’ needs and knowledge. Whenever we share information, the following two principles can be particularly important to consider (R. Kaplan, 2011):
Editors’ Comment: “Less is more” is an important theme that appears in various forms throughout the book (e.g., Bardwell, Chapter 7; Basu, Chapter 6; Ivancich, Chapter 5). Phalen (Chapter 21), in particular, provides empirical support demonstrating the value of restraint when sharing information.
Less is more! Despite our good intentions, it is hard to resist the inclination to add one more thing. However, as information providers, we must hold back. After all, our goal is not simply to deliver information but instead to enable the recipients to take steps toward building their mental models. Compared to our capacity for the (familiar) information, that of the recipients is far more limited. Their limited capacity, however, is not because they are stupid or ignorant or lazy or obstreperous or ill-willed. If the new information contradicts their experience or belief or if it fails to connect with their prior experiences, it is far more difficult for them to grasp it. In such situations, being provided with more information adds confusion rather than clarity.
Starting from where they’re at. When we connect our message or information to something the recipients can relate to, we are building on their familiarity and starting from their comfort zone. So much of traditional schooling runs counter to this notion! By contrast, Gustavson (2007) shows how his teaching draws on the wealth of knowledge, experience, and skill that young people have based on their activities that are not adult-supervised. “By allowing my students to bring their work into the classroom and talking about that work with them, they showed me what a productive learning environment could look like if it was more finely tuned to the ways youth design meaningful work for themselves” (p. 9). The shift in pedagogy had many of the positive consequences that one would expect when students take ownership of their efforts and are entrusted to develop and use their own mental models. Kearney (Chapter 16) not only speaks to the pervasive role of “knowing where they’re at” but also provides tools for helping reveal such information.
Structure. The two principles—”less is more” and “starting from where they’re at”—concern not only the amount of information but also its organization. The way information is organized or configured can make a substantial difference in its understandability. It may be amazing to be offered 101 tips for energy saving, but how many is one likely to remember or try? Even if these are categorized (e.g., water heaters and water usage, lighting, heating and cooling), if there are a dozen tips for “central air conditioner,” how many of these will people put to use? Providing a vast array of suggestions—even the popular use of “ten tips” or “ten rules”—is likely a reflection of the information provider’s familiarity as opposed to an effort to share information that is considerate of the recipients’ capacity to use it. Consider the difference between trying to grasp the ten items that are randomly arrayed and connected in the left half of Figure 2.1 as opposed to the ten items in the right half that are arranged hierarchically. It does not matter whether these items are concepts or tasks or places or tips. If the items are recognizable entities (i.e., things for which one has mental models), it will be easier to comprehend and remember at least some of them if they are conveyed with a useful structure rather than randomly.
Structure can be conveyed in many forms depending on whether the information is presented visually, spatially, and/or verbally. In all cases, structure serves to guide. The guidance might be with respect to what the material is about, where to look (e.g., on the monitor), or what comes next (e.g., signaling transitions in a talk) or to facilitate way finding on future occasions.
Exploration: Venturing beyond Familiarity
Comforting though the familiar might be, humans are also heavily biased to expand what they know, to explore, to go beyond. We are inquisitive creatures. While information providers see great efficiency in offering their knowledge, an explanation, or a solution, the information seekers may insist on finding their own answers even though the process may be far less efficient and the outcome imperfect.
It may be frustrating and perplexing to experts that their knowledgeable input is dismissed in favor of approaches that laypeople (i.e., those who are unqualified) developed. However, it can be equally frustrating and perplexing to a community (of laypeople) that a solution would be offered by professionals who have no familiarity (i.e., mental models) based on the local situation, with all its past and current dynamics.
This is not to say that the expert is superfluous. Kumler (Chapter 18) and A. Kaplan (Chapter 17) provide examples of sharing expertise not by conveying information but by facilitating learning. Bardwell (Chapter 7), Monroe (Chapter 14), and Wells and Pillemer (Chapter 10) show ways that experts can impart their knowledge while avoiding many of the problems of expertise. Bradley and Cooper (Chapter 12), Grese (Chapter 19), and Phalen (Chapter 21) provide examples of ways that design experts can encourage laypeople to explore possibilities. What these and other contexts demonstrate is that facilitating and enhancing exploration is a key component of information sharing. Exploration, as we have seen, can come in many sizes, durations, paths, and formats and can be achieved in many ways.
Paradoxes and quandaries. Asking a question can be a useful way to encourage exploration. What are the dangers of posing a question? This question shows how a question can create a space for exploration—whether it is posed by the information provider or the recipient. The question can offer a way to try things out and avoid feeling overwhelmed. It serves a number of other purposes as well. It can show concern and respect, helping to build trust. The question can introduce a puzzle or uncertainty that seeks resolution, and the answers may help listeners appreciate the diverse familiarities of the participants. Clearly, questions or paradoxes can be very effective for engaging people and extending mental models. Yet this question also signals that posing questions is by no means failsafe. When questions seem irrelevant, uninteresting, too complex, or ingenuous, they are unlikely to be intriguing or engaging.
Stories. Like questions, stories also have the potential to be excellent devices for exploration and information sharing. They can convey norms and values, build trust and commitment, provide emotional content, and create a larger context (EC-FAO Food Security Programme, n.d.; Sole & Wilson, 2002). They can also provide imagery and concreteness that connect to existing mental models while at the same time going beyond the familiar. They can be thoroughly engaging, even spellbinding. But, like questions, stories can also be ineffective and counterproductive (Sole & Wilson, 2002). We have all been subjected to endless, pointless, and self-serving stories that the storyteller finds all too engaging and worthy of elaboration.
Self-guided, self-paced. When we follow our own intuitions and pursue different leads at our own pace, there is a greater chance that new information will connect to our existing mental models. While the familiar can be boring, it can also permit us to see anew. We can become sensitive to nuances and variations that depend on the depth of prior experience. In the first few paragraphs of his chapter, A. Kaplan (Chapter 17) provides rich detail of new insights emerging in the context of well-developed mental models.
As Duvall’s (Chapter 20) research on engagement shows, strategies that encourage exploration have a great likelihood of generating durable change. If our path seems promising but then turns out to be not so useful after all, we can retract or reconsider. We may find ourselves returning to material that had previously seemed irrelevant but becomes pertinent at some later point. Information seeking readily becomes a series of quests, as the questions get reframed or lead to new questions. It is probably far more common to be surprised that an hour has elapsed when exploring information on one’s own than when attending a presentation or classes.
Editors’ Comment: Small experiments encompass many aspects not only of model building but also of RPM in general—we take action, get feedback, adjust mental models appropriately, envision future actions, choose one from the possibilities, and repeat the process, each time improving our ability to do so.
Exploration is a key component of small experiments. Many of these involve the quests that seem never to find permanent solutions—how to manage our time, reduce disorganization, be responsive to everyone’s desires while meeting personal needs, etc. By exploring alternatives and informally tracking outcomes, we gain answers to our own questions and expand our mental models. Although there is no lack of expert advice for these pursuits, those are unlikely to yield satisfying resolution without our own self-guided, feedback-sensitive efforts.
Exploration often achieves a sense that the effort was compelling. Even challenges and hurdles can become intriguing when we pursue answers to our own quests. We can find ourselves learning and testing new skills or discovering that directions that seemed intriguing are not worth pursuing. The self-guided exploration can thus lead to greater understanding of a particular content as well as greater self-knowledge (Basu, Chapter 6). While such pursuits begin with the familiar—our existing mental models—they take us on new paths that lead to further explorations.
With purpose. Millions of students in the American educational system decide to abort their schooling. In their report on what they call “the silent epidemic,” Bridgeland, Dilulio, and Morrison (2006) cite that almost half of the students who drop out of high school felt “bored and disengaged” about school, although 70% of them “were confident they could have graduated if they had tried.” By contrast, the reports by Bridgeland, Dilulio, and Wulsin (2008) and Bridgeland and Milano (2012) document what happens when high school students are provided meaningful opportunities to engage in their learning (e.g., through service learning). The benefits are reflected in their sense of personal worth as well as an increased likelihood of graduating, finding meaningful work after high school, and the desire to further their education.
High school education is by no means the only context where information-sharing and model-building efforts may fail to serve their intent. In their 2012 report to President Barack Obama, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended ways to address the forecasted need for “producing, over the next decade, approximately one million additional college graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields” while also acknowledging that “fewer than 40% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete it.” Their recommendations heavily emphasize “discovery-based research courses” and other mechanisms to encourage exploration. Such approaches are hardly new. Carl Wieman, who after winning the Nobel prize in physics has turned his attention over the last fifteen years to the challenge of undergraduate science teaching, expresses his failure to comprehend “why institutions of higher education would disregard decades of research showing the superiority of student-centered, active learning over the traditional 50-minute lecture” (cited by Mervis, 2013).
The same issues are germane in the context of a single talk, a short or long course, an entire program, and to any format of information delivery. If the information providers’ purpose of imparting information is to be successful, it cannot ignore the information recipients’ needs. It is ironic that even workshops on engaged learning devote the first few hours to presentations by the experts on the topic!
From what we know about building mental models, approaches that rely heavily on knowledge delivery are unlikely to lead to the intended outcomes. Since there is no choice but to grow our own mental models, experience and exploration are key to their construction. When information seekers are engaged in the process, there is an implicit sense of purpose that draws on their curiosity and desire to go beyond the familiar.
Many chapters in this volume provide examples of learning with purpose. As Grese (Chapter 19), Kumler (Chapter 18), and A. Kaplan (Chapter 17) show, structured learning situations within the educational context can be designed to permit individuals or small groups to explore and discover beyond the familiar. The dramatically different contexts of the prison situation discussed by Ginsburg (Chapter 9) and the seniors’ interest in volunteer stewardship discussed by Wells and Pillemer (Chapter 10) both show the benefits of programs that provide a sense of purpose that leads to venturing beyond the familiar. Purpose is intrinsic to the applications discussed by Bardwell (Chapter 7), Gallagher (Chapter 8), and Monroe (Chapter 14). These chapters offer a useful assortment of ways that learning and exploration can support model building.
Mental Models and Enhancing Our Best
Humans carry around an awesome treasure trove that enables them to act, think ahead, and make decisions. They thrive on information, have an unending thirst for it, and hate to be confused. They go to great lengths to seek answers and eagerly share their knowledge and insights with others. These same humans, however, also spurn information that could guide their behavior, save them time and effort, and lead to better decisions for the world. To many information providers, the solution to this frustrating situation is quite straightforward: we need to replace ignorance with knowledge, inform the public, and raise awareness about the dire consequences of inappropriate action or inaction (Besley & Nisbett, 2011; Groffman et al., 2010). Alas, such well-intended efforts fail in yielding the desired outcomes if the recipients deem them simplistic or too complex, irrelevant or too demanding, important but not memorable.
Rather than conclude that humans are just too difficult to deal with, RPM points to alternative conclusions, exemplified throughout this volume. The themes offered here, while closely interconnected with other aspects of RPM, focus on the model-building domain.
Context matters. Our mental models develop with experience across many circumstances, settings, and contexts. Some of these are more supportive of our gaining understanding than others. Attention to what makes environments or contexts more supportive can play an important role in information sharing. If our path is obstructed, the setting is bewildering, or the situation lacks guidance, we are less likely to function effectively. By contrast, contexts where making a mistake can foster learning and where we feel we can make a difference are more likely to bring out the best in us. In other words, the way the environment facilitates or hinders our model-building efforts has enormous implications for everything from competence to quality of life.
Familiarity and engagement. As an information-based animal, humans vacillate between the familiar, whereby we can feel comfortable and competent, and the unfamiliar, whereby we can expand our knowledge and learn about the environment. It is dangerous to stray too far from the familiar, but it is also perilous not to venture forth. These alternations can lead to behavior that seems impetuous or indecisive, but they are essential for our capacity to recognize what is going on and to figure out what might happen next while still taking appropriate action. People thus prefer and benefit from acquiring information that is relevant to their concerns and to doing it at their own pace. Exploration is a powerful process for achieving understanding.
Feelings run deep. People are motivated to understand what is going on; they hate being disoriented or confused. They also have strong desires to play a role and greatly dislike feeling incompetent and helpless. Clearly, we are an emotional creature. Building and using mental models is not a sideline; we care deeply. Our mental models are at the core of what motivates us and are the basis for our thoughts and actions.
Hearing “the other.” Our experiences lead to mental models of our uniqueness, concerns, and what is important to us. We are sensitive to an enormous range of cues that support or contradict our sense of self. We find it painful to have our personhood violated and express cynicism and discontent when others ignore what we hold dear. Despite such well-honed detection of possible offenses, we are far less aware of instilling these feelings in others. The emphasis on information sharing centers on the need to build mental models of “the other.” What is the other’s familiarity? What is important to the information recipient? Who is this person, this group, this anonymous “other”? However important our wisdom might be, it will be wasted if we violate the personhood of others.
Model building is a lifelong challenge. Our mental models are weighty and weightless. They are invisible to us yet ever with us. They guide our decisions—and indecisions. They are dependent on our experiences and our exploration of the information that surrounds us. Information sharing is at the core of our experience, as both recipients and providers. It is at the core of our own reasonableness and the reasonableness of others.
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