Examining Mental Models as a Means of Reculturing Schools




Student achievement is the ultimate goal for schools, yet many schools in this country have been, and continue to, struggle with how to effect positive change. Increasing passing rates, improving attendance and behavior, and improving the culture and climate of a school is a complicated process that involves change on many levels. Many educational reform initiatives have failed because the underlying, systemic features of the school were not accessed, and therefore, the behaviors, norms and beliefs of the educators were not impacted (Friend & Caruthers, 2012). People are often fearful of looking inward to examine strongly held beliefs and values, yet this is what must be done in order to change the dynamics and solidify relationships between teachers and students in the classroom. Quality education and improved academic achievement for students are developed by policies and practices that encourage educators to connect to the lives of their students, to have high expectations of them, and to interact with them in ways that build mutually supportive relationships that promote learning (Friend & Caruthers, 2012). Without examining one’s mental models and assumptions about students and their families, school improvement will simply be surface-level.


In order to facilitate the school improvement process, administrators must lead the faculty through a process of self-reflection and inquiry which will result in a “reculturing” of the school. Reculturing consists of “changes in schools as a result of educators and community members rejecting a paradigm of sameness and beginning to reflect on, evaluate, and expand their own mental models regarding the education of students” (Friend & Caruthers, 2012). Upon reflection and critical examination of one’s own and others’ beliefs, educators are able to deconstruct what was and adopt new ways of thinking and behaving (Friend & Caruthers, 2012). This research brief discusses the commonly-held deficit model, and contrasts it with a strengths’ based model which leads to improved outcomes for students. In addition, this brief reviews several processes recommended in the research that facilitate the process of changing negative mental models into those which will better serve both educators and students.


Mental Models


The concept of mental models dates back to industrial dynamics where Forrester (1971) describes it as a mental image of the world that contains selected concepts and relationships (Rook, 2013). Many theorists have defined mental models in different ways, but all agree that mental models have the capacity to influence how an individual makes judgements, and consequently to affect how a person acts (Rook, 2013). In order to enhance learning and growth, mental models must be examined because they have an impact on how one learns and understands the world around them.


Human beings are constantly interpreting data. Our behavior and our attitudes are shaped by the images, assumptions, and stories we believe about ourselves and others. Because mental models exist beneath one’s awareness, they are rarely tested, or even acknowledged. They are typically invisible to us unless we look for them. (Senge, 2000)


The above diagram is the ladder of inference, which illustrates the process of observing, interpreting and acting in response to an event. The assumptions that people generally make are that:

  • Our beliefs are the truth

  • The truth is obvious

  • Our beliefs are based on real data

  • The data we select are real data

Differences in mental models explain why two people can observe the same event and describe it differently. Each person is paying attention to different details…the details that support their particular beliefs. For example, when an elementary student returns to school Monday morning with his take-home folder untouched, this data could be interpreted many different ways according to one’s mental models. The more strongly-held one’s beliefs are about the observed data, the more strongly one asserts assumptions and confidently takes particular actions. Our mental models determine what we see, so if we are not aware of our mental models, we believe that the data we see is the only data that exists. Therefore, mental models limit people’s ability to change. (Senge, 2000).


Deficit Models


There is an inherent negativity in the way educators talk about students with special needs. The educational systems have been developed to use words such as disability, disorder, deficit and dysfunction when describing students. According to neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Defects, disorders, diseases can play a paradoxical role, by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen, or even be imaginable, in their absence,” (Armstrong, 2012) but because of the deficit model, educators may not even be able to see these strengths. Robert DuFour once said, “What you see will depend on what you are looking for.”


Teachers often rely on stereotypes of their students based on misconceptions they have acquired about the students’ racial or ethnic group, and that these beliefs are typically viewed through a deficit lens. Even when teachers have the best of intentions, teaching and learning is impacted by these views (Waddell, 2013). The deficit model commonly refers to the negative assumptions teachers hold about minority, low-income and linguistically diverse students and families, resulting in an assumption that educational and economic inequities are due to deficiencies within the student and the family. Another commonly-held belief is that low-income parents of color do not value the importance of education, fail to instill this value in their children, and seldom participate in the education of their children. This mental model is detrimental to students’ educational achievement as it leads to teachers having low expectations and beliefs about student ability, which impacts the ability of teachers and students to form positive relationships (Waddell, 2013).


Another example of the impact of a deficit mental model is with students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency. Regardless of their racial backgrounds, these students may be viewed by educators as “other” and separated into self-contained programs where these identified students have limited interaction with mainstream students or the general curriculum (Friend & Caruthers, 2012). As educators, we must identify the mental models from which are we operating, and look at what we are developing in our students by labelling them according to what is wrong with them (Armstrong, 2012).


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