The concept of mental models has been around for a while now. It seems to have matured especially in the area of computer science and engineering where modeling is necessary for the design and construction of devices. Having a firm mental picture of how something works and relates to the external world is crucial in maximizing its performance. Yet mental models apply to more than just technology (Jonassen & Henning, 1999) and are crucial in understanding how we function and interact with the world around us. For example, they could be very useful to educators today who are struggling to find a way to adopt or adapt ICT into their schools and colleges.
Mental models provide an internal framework for managing knowledge and describe how we know what we know. Many of us, as educators, understand how important it is to connect to students’ analogical learning and reasoning through structure-mapping (Gentner & Gentner, 1983). But actually getting down to how someone visualizes the operation of a complex system is difficult. There are no brain viewers that instantly map the way someone is piecing together an idea. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that everyone’s system is always more or less different from others’.
Most of us probably have vastly different models of the way technology ought to fit into the teaching and learning process in our institutions. Our own were probably constructed long ago, during our formative years, as we progressed from one grade level to the next. Metaphors intrigued me the most so I asked educators: What metaphors would you use to describe our educational system to a person from another planet, or to a long isolated native of the Amazon who had never been exposed to formal schooling?
I also asked leading educators from around the country to draw, on a piece of paper, our educational system for someone who did not understand our language (i.e., words would be of no use) or, if there was limited communication ability, what simple metaphors they might use to explain education to someone who was unfamiliar with the idea of abstract models. As I had suspected, the answers were all over the page.
I continue to struggle with how I would describe my model. It is constantly changing through research, dialogue, and reflection. Finding a perfect model is probably not the goal as much as is the simple act of contemplating your current working model and how you might represent it in a drawing.
I thought it might be interesting to ask you, our ETCJ readers, to share mental models that address the following question: What is your mental model of the way technology ought to fit into the teaching and learning process?
Would it be a picture of someone pushing a student or teacher into a smart classroom full of the latest technology? Or maybe classrooms rolling down a hill into a giant pool of virtual learning? A classroom full of engaged students accessing the web via laptops? A young woman in a small isolated African village reading the latest issue of of the New York Times on an iPad? Please email your illustration to me, at firstname.lastname@example.org, in JPG format. Include your full name, email address, institution or organization, position and title, and email address.
When I receive a bunch of drawings, I’ll publish some of them in a follow-up article. Hopefully, we’ll be able to generate a discussion on the ideas captured in the illustrations as well as the modeling process. We might begin to see where our similarities and differences really exist and where we can most effectively make changes that improve education in the 21st century.
Gentner, D., & Gentner, D. R. (1983). Flowing waters or teeming crowds: Mental models of electricity. In D. Gentner & A. Stevens (Eds), Mental models (pp. 99-130). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Jonassen, D. H., & Henning, P. (1999). Mental models: Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world. Educational Technology, 39 (3), 37-42.
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