What Is Your Mental Model for 21st Century Education?

By William H. Zaggle

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.

laptop sporting a floppy drive; on the screen: My Mental Model for 21st Century Education?

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 wzaggle@globalscholar.com, 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.

7 Responses

  1. By contrast, Hans Traxler‘s ironic and strangely prophetic 1975 equal opportunities cartoon quoted in Chapter 7: Freinet-Pedagogy of Inclusive Education – The Osnabrueck-Model.
    I found it doing an image search for Freinet pedagogy, which did not yield good “straight” illustrations of it, unfortunately. But that chapter on Freinet’s pedagogy contains many ideas that are still relevant today.

  2. I think you go back to the Media Effects debate and research from the 80’s. Richard Clark used the metaphor of a grocery truck in stating that technology is nothing but a grocery truck and it’s load/groceries are what brings about learning. Thus, he goes on to state that the groceries represent instructional strategies. So technology in the classroom must harness instructional strategies. It’s why you see that technologies used to promote consumption of information have been shown to be ineffective in affecting achievement. Plenty of research out there showing student-centered methods of technology integration are effective.

    I could go on. Please read my article on technology when Jim decides to publish it.

    • My response is similar to Dr. Bob’s. The most important aspect of education is the way instructional strategies guide students to high levels of performance on worthy educational goals. The role of technology is to enhance existing strategies, allow for new strategies not possible without it, and bring those strategies to students who could not otherwise access them.

  3. Thanks for all the great replies. One person I spoke with about this and asked the question to, stated that he envisioned himself at the top of a cliff, throwing down ropes, ladders, instructions on good places to grab on, etc., to students down below. He knew they had to climb up themselves, but all he could do was try to help each climber in his or her own way, and that he felt technology helped him to seek, sort and deliver that assistance more effectively I think these words describe a picture very easily illustrated in a JPG format, and along the lines of what I was hoping to collect. I found it interesting in that it is obvious from his mental model picture that it was how far the students climbed up the cliff that mattered and not how much stuff they collected from him, dropped from the top.

    • The cliff-climbing analogy is interesting,but it would work much better with the teacher at the bottom of the cliff with the students.
      I’ve only taken one cliff-climbing lesson, but I have seen several ones taken by others, and the instructor was at the bottom, checking harnesses and knots, and that participants knew how to properly fix pegs in the rock. Besides, if the ropes hung from a single point at the top, the climbing groups would be bound start swinging and clashing together once they get midway up the cliff.
      Dropping the analogy: student-centered learning should also include connected learning, learning as a team – especially with the present digital tools.
      This entails a change in mentality, of course:
      At the turn of the millennium, there was a revision of the middle school programs in Ticino (CH) where I was teaching French as a foreign language. Our experts instructed the foreign and native language teachers to have meetings per school to discuss their proposals.
      I was teaching in 3 schools and the idea of going through 3 lengthy meetings about the same stuff was a bit too much. So at the first one, I asked if I could take the minutes and share them in the meetings at other schools. My colleagues OKed that. The meeting at the 2nd school was much shorter, as we only had to add a few further remarks. At the 3rd school, something funny happened. The headmaster also taught French, but hadn’t come to the meeting. So I fetched him, handed him a copy of the compounded minutes, and asked again what we wanted to add to them.
      “But that’s CHEATING!” he blurted out. “No, that’s rationalizing”, I retorted: “no point in having everybody redoing from scratch what has already been done by others, is there?”
      When the experts got our compounded minutes as a digital file, they actually thanked us for having submitted a single document for the three schools, and for having spared them the hassle of retyping them in their report.
      I was reminded of that headmaster’s reaction when I viewed the video of Sir Ken Robinson’s 2008 “Changing the paradigms of education” lecture at the Royal Society of Arts, where he says, about a longitudinal study of creative thinking that showed that it decreased as kids got older:

      Now, lots of things have happened to these kids as they’ve grown up, a lot. But one of the most important things out of them, I’m convinced, is that by now, they’ve become educated.You know, they’ve spent 10 years at school, being told that there’s one answer, it’s at the back. And don’t look. And don’t copy, because that’s cheating.I mean, outside school, that’s called collaboration.you know, but inside schools.
      Now this isn’t because teachers want to do it this way. It’s just because it happens that way. It’s because it’s in the gene pool of education. (1)

      What is needed is a fairly radical genetic engineering, then.

      (1) From a transcript of his lecture.

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