In an age where tsunami-size waves of information are constantly hitting us and things change with unprecedented speed, the one ability that will keep people and business afloat is the one to think critically. Innovation is the sole chance organizations have to be successful and move forward. Yet it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Simply sending an email to everyone asking them to be creative or gathering a bunch of employees in a room with the same request might lead to some ideas but it takes a lot more to come up with new and refreshing concepts.

This is where the theory of mental models comes in – it postulates that acquiring a new way of regarding how everything works will lead not only in a fresh perspective on reality but also in surprising solutions to improve it.


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Adopting new mental models

There are many methods to be employed in acquiring new mental models – it is important to understand that this does not mean simply learning something but fundamentally changing the way we understand the intricate workings of everything.

Travelling to a completely different culture and truly immersing in it for a period of time is one way to achieve this. Since this may prove to be a bit too costly (both financially and time-wise), reading is a wonderful alternative.

Furthermore, modern technology allows us to see and listen to people from different corners of the world, trying to see things through their eyes and draw knowledge from their experiences.

And last but not least, there is learning.

The truth about brain plasticity

For a long time it was thought that the human brain could no longer suffer modifications after a certain age. Then research proved that brain plasticity is real — even in the case of adults. As it turns out, the human brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain neurons.


Read more: The learning brain and why L&D professionals should care about it


Apart from the genetic factors that allow this, the environment and the endeavors of each person all play an important part in neuroplasticity. It is true that this process is most active at the beginning of life when the brain first organizes itself but it is also present in the case of brain injury when it seeks to compensate for lost functions and through adulthood whenever significant learning takes place.

This is where mental models for learning come in. They ensure that information acquirement is meaningful.

3 Mental models for learning L&D professionals should know about

Here are but three examples:

  1. The Feynman model

    One very successful mental model for learning was designed by Richard Feynman, the Nobel-winning scientist who is usually the poster picture for mental models. His four step method is this:

    1. Identify the concept.
    2. Explain it to a toddler.
    3. Figure out the gaps and go back to the source material.
    4. Repeat the process until all gaps are filled.

     
    This apparently simple method is especially useful in today’s world of information overload when it’s’ harder than ever to discern what is valuable and true. It’s tempting to believe that you understand a concept after reading a few blog posts and clicking through an e-learning course. Applying the Feynman model will show that there are blurry areas that need further attention.

  2. Reframing

    Another good mental model to be used in adult learning is reframing. This means making the effort to regard a certain situation from a completely different point of view. It’s effective in learning when one feels that in spite of all the information and demonstrations, the brain can’t quite seem to fully grasp the concept.

    The aim of reframing is to shift one’s perspective to feel more empowered to achieve neural plasticity. A lot of times, simply reframing one’s perspective on a situation can also help people change how they feel about it. This is why a lot of fields use this model – it’s present in therapy, coaching and even marketing.


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    To give an example of how it works, when a team is stuck on a project, instead of adopting a “this is not going to work” passive attitude they shift towards “if there was one thing we could do for this to function, what would it be?”.

  3. Circle of competence

    When talking about corporate learning, competence and skill are very important. The Circle of Competence model has been attributed to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger and goes as follows:

    1. Understand the level of expertise, knowledge, and skills.
    2. Understand where the gaps are.
    3. Leave the covered areas alone and operate in those that need attention.
    4. Expand the areas of competence.

     
    It might sound obvious, but knowing what we don’t know is actually harder than it seems. That’s why L&D professionals need to step in, apply this model and show people both their strong suits and their areas of improvement. Awareness about what the gaps are is the first and most important step in successfully filling them and thus achieving meaningful, long lasting learning.

In the end

Mental models are helpful in all areas of life and business. However, since learning is truly the motor of evolution and innovation they are paramount in achieving optimal brain plasticity.

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