Sunday, April 7, 2013

Challenging and Rebuilding Mental Models - Conceptual Models

My students study the road while traveling to the YMCA for swimming lessons. 


Because they have studied the route, back in the classroom, on Google Earth and are working on their mental map models!

Sometimes we have to break something in order to fix it. When someone visits a doctor for a nose injury, there is a good possibility that their nose will need to be broken again as part of the treatment.

As teachers, we must often go through the process of breaking through the misconceptions and incorrect models that our students have built, in their minds, around an academic concept. These are called mental models. And, we all have them!

What I'm calling a mental model is the representation, or picture, seen, and sometimes "felt," in the mind, when thinking abstractly. For example, the picture you see in your mind when you think about a year divided into months. Is it a line? A circle? A calendar? 

Mental models begin to develop early on in our lives and we test and correct them from then on. By the time my students get to my room, they have all kinds of models that they are using. Many are correct, but some are flawed and can cause problems when learning new concepts. 

Shari's Nerd Corner:

You might be surprised to know that everyone has a slightly different model. What I perceive may not be what you do.

I asked a friend what her model looks like (Yes, I’m nerdy like that!). It took her a minute to understand what I meant but when I asked her to show me where we are right now, (April), she looked down at the place she would put April and pointed at the space in front of her. She described a linear representation that looked like a timeline that repeated every year. When her eyes focused on the space in front of her, I knew she was experiencing what I do. The model is more than a picture. It's an invisible object that she can move and refer to in her mind. 

I suppose my tendency to drift into my Intra-personal Intelligence (Gardner) makes me more aware of these models floating around in my head, but I can't help but notice them! I've been surprised that most people I have asked about their model of a calendar year have taken the time to look and describe it to me. 

The model of a year that I see in my mind looks something like a Ferris Wheel that I travel around during the year. I move counter-clockwise around the wheel as the year goes by. Winter is at the top and summer is at the bottom but don’t ask me for details because the actual visual is a little vague. 

When I mentioned this idea to my sisters last month, one described my model in nearly every detail, which really surprised me, and the other described a timeline model with months in a row. My son describes his as a pie chart. 

What DOES your model look like?


  1. I just discovered your blog! So excited!

    I have thought about this question so often as a teacher and as just a person interacting in the world. I've also been a nerd and asked my friends about how they visualize a calendar year. I have the same mental model of the calendar as you do!

    I've wondered if our calendar mental models have to do with the calendar visual our early childhood educators used. Unfortunately, I do not remember what my teachers used. How much do the scaffolds we use with our children impact their life-long mental models?

    -Kelly in MA

  2. Hi Kelly! It's nice to know I'm not the only nerd around! I suspect teachers have something to do with the models that students develop and maybe there's a right/left brain difference, also. That is purely unscientific, just observation!
    Thanks for reading my blog and for giving me some more questions to ponder!

  3. Hi, I'm a student at Illinois State University studying to become a teacher and I too have found the way we picture different ideas in our mind to be rather fascinating. I think understanding that students will likely have a different picture in their head when they are thinking about something is an important skill for teachers to have. For example my image of the calendar looks like two rows of six blocks sitting on top of one another. The top row starts with January on the left then ends with June. Then directly below June is July and moves to the left with December directly below January.

  4. Thank you for sharing your mental model! Although it's very different from mine, it sounds totally logical to me. Good luck in your future as an educator!