The wheels of Learning and our Mental Models

organisational development change management

. This learning process can be perceived as a wheel that goes around and around. During half the cycle, when we are testing our concepts and observing what happens in a concrete experience, we are learning know-how. In the other half of the cycle, when we are reflecting on our observations and forming concepts, we are learning know-why.

The Wheel of Learning and Our Mental Models

. Real learning occurs when we store in our memory the know-how and know-why we pick up through the multiple turns of the wheel as assumptions, notions and theories about how the world works are accumulated. These are assumptions, beliefs, notions, and theories of our mental model. These can be simple generalisations, such as "people are untrustworthy, or they can be complex theories about business, politics, economics, consumer behaviour, etc. They represent our unique view of the world and our assessment of the consequences that are likely to flow from any given action we might take. Our mental models are the inner voice that says, "If you do this in this type of situation, then this will happen".

. Our mental models are deeply-held images of how the world works, but they aren't passive images since our minds are far from being static storage crevices. Not only are our minds shaped by our experiences in the world, but our minds also shape our experiences. Our mental models not only are formed by the turns of the wheel of learning but they also shape how and when the wheel turns, and how fast it turns. It has been observed that

organisational development change management

"...Mental models represent a person's view of the world, including explicit and implicit understandings. Mental models provide the context in which to view and interpret new material, and they determine how stored information is relevant to a given situation. They represent more than a collection of ideas, memories and experiences - they are like the source code of a computer's operating system, the manager and arbiter of acquiring, retaining, using and deleting new information. But they are much more than that because they are also like the programmer of that source code with the know-how to design a different code as well as the know-why to choose one over the other..."

organisational development change management

Daniel Kim in Boycott et al, 1998

Our mental-model source code is extremely powerful, literally controlling and directing what we see, hear, and pay attention to. It affects our interpretation of events and even our physical response to those events. A good example of how mental models work is

"...Two men are walking down a dark street late at night. Suddenly, a shadow moves rapidly across their path. One man's heart begins to pound and he takes a short quick breath. The other man remains calm.....Both men experienced the same event, but their reaction was totally different because of their differing perceptions of reality, caused by their different mental models of what shadows mean on dark streets at night..."

William N. Isaacs as quoted by Joseph Boyett et al, 1998


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