You may have heard this story:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it.

In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”.

For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan.

As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.

The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”.

Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope.

The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true.

I can only attest to the fact that I have done this time and time again in my personal and professional life. It’s hard not to. We are shaped by our experiences, yet they are all limited in scope.

As I continue to grow professionally and personally, one of the things that strikes me is how strongly my opinions are held, even in the face of new facts.

This parable struck a nerve with me this past week. 

I had a strong opinion at work, that was challenged by new research (I wrote about it here).

I had a strong opinion as a coach, that was challenged by an outside perspective.

I had a strong opinion as a parent, that was challenged by society.

This isn’t to say that my opinions had no merit. I believe they did. But, they were only run through one model of thinking, which was my experience.

In today’s world, where opinions are freely shared wherever you turn, it is more important than ever to stop, think, and do the work of using mental models to understand our reasoning.

What Is A Mental Model?

As author Shane Parrish puts it, “Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.”

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

From the Great Mental Models Book (which you can get on Audible now):

The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models in our head and their usefulness in the situation at hand. The more models you have—the bigger your toolbox—the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality. It turns out that when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions
variety matters.

Most of us, however, are specialists. Instead of a latticework of mental models, we have a few from our discipline. Each specialist sees something different. By default, a typical Engineer will think in systems. A psychologist will think in terms of incentives. A biologist will think in terms of evolution. By putting these disciplines together in our head, we can walk around a problem in a three dimensional way. If we’re only looking at the problem one way, we’ve got a blind spot. And blind spots can kill you.

Here’s another way to think about it. When a botanist looks at a forest they may focus on the ecosystem, an environmentalist sees the impact of climate change, a forestry engineer the state of the tree growth, a business person the value of the land. None are wrong, but neither are any of them able to describe the full scope of the forest. Sharing knowledge, or learning the basics of the other disciplines, would lead to a more well-rounded understanding that would allow for better initial decisions about managing the forest.

Or, simply put, we must see the Elephant from every perspective in order to truly understand the animal.

Mental Models In Our Work

Over the past few months I’ve been developing a new course, Theory to Practice: The Science of LearningDoing the research on the best learning models and science-backed instructional practices has really challenged my experiences and conventional thinking.

Also, understanding how the research can be challenged and debunked by other studies is fascinating. I started out with 50 different instructional strategies, but it ultimately came down to 10 that stood the test of time in working in a variety of situations.

Think about the Marshmallow Test. I’m sure many of you have heard about the Marshmallow test, but in case you haven’t it can be paraphrased here:

In the original Stanford marshmallow experiment, children were given one marshmallow. They could eat the marshmallow right away; or, if they waited fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return without eating the marshmallow, they’d get a second marshmallow. Even more interestingly, in follow-up studies two decades later, the children who waited longer for the second marshmallow, i.e. showed delayed gratification, had higher SAT scores, school performance, and even improved Body Mass Index. This is normally interpreted as indicating the importance of self-control and delayed gratification for life success.

I believed this study showed everything we needed to know about grit and why it was so important for our kids to have a growth mindset. I watched Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on the subject and shared it with everyone I knew in education. Although I was preaching growth mindset, my mind was “fixed” on this study without thinking about the context.

But, as it tends to do, the context made me rethink things:

In a new variant of the Marshmallow experiment entitled “Rational snacking“, Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin from the University of Rochester gave the children similar tests with a new context.

The researchers put the children into two groups and asked them to perform art projects. Children in the first group each received small box of used crayons, and were told that if they could wait, the researcher would bring them more and better art supplies. However, after three minutes, the adult returned and told the child they had made a mistake, and there were no more art supplies so they’d have to use the original crayons.

Children in the second group went through the same routine except for this time the adult fulfilled their promises, bringing the children more and better art supplies

Group 1 was told to wait and lied to. Group 2 was told to wait and was rewarded for their patience.

Now for the next iteration, the adult now gave the children in the first group a single sticker and told the child that if they waited, the adult would bring them more stickers to use. Again the adult came back and said there were no stickers.

Children in the second group did the same routine with stickers, and were rewarded for their patience again.

It wasn’t until after these two routines with the art supplies and the stickers, that the researchers finally did repeated the classic marshmallow test with both groups.

Here’s what happened:

The results demonstrated children were a lot more rational than we might have thought. Of the 14 children in group 1, who had been shown that the experimenters were unreliable adults, 13 of them ate the first marshmallow. 8 of the 14 children in the reliable adult group, waited out the fifteen minutes. On average children in unreliable group 1 waited only 3 minutes, and those in reliable group 2 waited 12 minutes.

I took the first marshmallow test on face value. I didn’t think about what the various experiences were like in their households growing up. I didn’t consider what context of life they had lived vs the other kids in the experiment.

Context changes everything.

If we don’t have context we can believe that studies, and research, and best practices work for all students, regardless of what context they are bringing with them into school.

I’ve been reminded too many times by my own inability to see the context of a situation, that this is an integral piece of learning conversations.

That’s my hope with this new course, that science of learning will be an integral piece, but ultimately lead to more informed practice, and better learning experiences for all kids.

To that end, I’d love to hear your reflections on a situations where you only felt one part of the elephant. Together we are better!

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  • Great minds think alike! In Perceptual Control Theory the highest level of perception that has been identified is Systems Levels – what you have called mental models. When you shift a mental model you change a whole lot of what you perceive and how you act in the world. This link is to an article I wrote years ago about the Transformational Life Skills program I taught in the jail. It is all about shifting mental models. Enjoy!

  • Holly May says:

    I am moved by this! As an elementary math teacher and coach I can relate to the concept of mental models on a professional level because I communicate with parents and teachers about “that new way we are teaching math now”. Since most parents learned about calculations through rote memorization and problem solving through the application of algorithms to keywords in text, their mental model of “WHAT IS MATH” is very different from the math teachers who are instilling flexible strategies, algebraic reasoning, sense of number and mental math in their 5-11 year olds. This can make for some heated debates and communication breakdowns.

    We do our best to communicate to parents the value in seeing mathematics from all perspectives and learning structures and strategies for solving problems as opposed to algorithms for singular tasks. However, after reading your blog I am certain that I am communicating from the trunk of the elephant while the parents are grasping the tusk. There will need to be a shift in order to help them see the elephant, and part of that shift is that I will have to show respect and understanding of their perspective and communicate to them from a place of understanding. Thank you for helping me see this in a new way!

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