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Mental Model Breakdown

Someone recently wrote in to ask about “unlearning”. How do you get people to “unlearn” past behaviors or past learnings? The underlying assumption is that the past learnings are bad or not useful and thus need to be “unlearned” (you can read about it in the comments section of this post.) It got me thinking — how does one “unlearn”, alter, dismantle or simply change other people’s mental models? It got me thinking about my mother’s kitchen.

My mother’s kitchen

As an adult, I’d go back to visit my mother’s house, and one of our biggest arguments was over her kitchen — more specifically, the organization of her kitchen. I could never find anything — which is not unusual for a visitor, but more importantly I couldn’t learn how to find anything and had to ask her for help every single time. Drove me bananas.

The cooking oil would be under the sink. The spices would be with the pots. There was nothing useful in the pantry. The flour, sugar, eggs (she had 2 fridges) and baking trays would be in a different room. What kind of logic was this??? I would reorganize her kitchen. She would get furious. Arguments would ensue. After a few times, I gave up.

Only just recently, I realized her logic — the mental model of her kitchen.

You see, I organize according to category — like things with like things. Dry food items here, spices there, pots under there, vegetables here. She organized according to function.

What function would require cooking oil under the sink? Well, she had a huge burner ring outside for deep frying large batches of stuff. The burner was outside on the patio, the kitchen window served as a pass-through, the kitchen sink was under the window. It was easier to have the cooking oil there rather than walk across the kitchen to get it (she also had bad knees.)

Her spices were close to the stove, where she cooked, with the pots because she could reach them there. When my brother remodeled the kitchen, he made the upper cabinets too high. She’s 4’10”.

The sugar, flour, eggs, baking items — well, she didn’t use them that often. And when she did, she baked huge batches of stuff, which meant she needed more room than what was in her kitchen, so she had another room set up for that.

The organization of her kitchen increased her efficiency. That was her mental model.

It was not one I shared.

Learning mental models

When I first moved down to the United States of America, I had a job as a writer. I was to help people learn about information technology at a University. At that time, the SysAdmin folks dictated how we thought about things. I was new, I followed along. The documentation we wrote was organized according to categories: accounts, email software, SSH, FTP, and other stuff. It was mostly useless. Why?

People did not think in those SysAdmin categories. We let the inmates run the asylum. I realized how useless it was after I left that position, then tried to access my email and change my password. I looked in the book that I had written to remember how to do this. I couldn’t find the information under email. I searched and searched and finally called the Help Desk in frustration. The information was under the Accounts section — but who would have ever thought of that?

We never bothered to learn the mental models of our learners. Not even at the most basic level. How did they organize their thinking about “that stuff they do online”?

But wait…we can’t figure out what everyone is thinking!

True, you cannot figure out the mental models of every single individual. No one is asking that. But we can figure out patterns. First question — is about functionality or categories? Do they really need to know how a domain is organized in order to do their work? Yes, it might help them in the long run, but realistically, that’s not the goal of most people. They just want to get their work done. Help them do that. Where are your learners currently at and where do they or you want them to go?

Shared understandings

Sometimes we have to create common or shared understandings. And individual mental models may get in the way. So what do we do — assuming we are talking about adults?

  • Treat people as adults
    • They have survived in the world so far using the mental models they have been using, don’t demean their understanding of the world. Work to understand it. Break it down.
  • Set a common, agreed upon goal — a destination.
    • Unless you can agree upon why things need to change (the marketplace has changed, more than one person needs to use this kitchen, there’s been a merger) you will not get people on your side.
  • Propose a new mental model
    • How will this effect people in their work?
    • What specific behaviors will have to change? Why?
  • Talk about people’s fears and uncertainties
    • Create a safe environment to discuss fear and uncertainty
    • Allow people to vent
  • Experiment and play with new behaviors
    • Make the learning playful but serious (experiential learning)
    • Engage people in finding resolutions to the change
    • Disrupt existing behaviors – have learners reflect on why they did what they did
  • Make a plan to make it happen (action plan)
  • Follow-up (metrics)

I realize these are large bullet points and the struggle is still “how”. It’s hard work to figure out where your learners are currently at and how to change. The specific context matters. Doing the research and analysis matters. Figuring out how to measure the impact of changing mental models matters — what’s the business outcome and how do you measure it?

If I were to ever spend a significant amount of time in my mother’s kitchen, I would start with a conversation that would go something like this: “if we’re going to work together in this space, mom, it would help to make some changes on where you keep things.” I would not, ever again, stomp in there and simply start changing things. She would rightly be furious and resistant.

Imagine the emotional impact on the learners.

Then take it one step at a time.

If you’re all alone in this it helps to brainstorm with friends and colleagues. FYI – I’m always willing to play.

Posted in cognition, instructional design.

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