Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Mental Model Trap in ‘Experts’

One of the workshops I conduct has to do with learning. In fact it is about a particular theory of learning that Chris Kenyon and I developed in 2000, and that has gained some traction, particularly in Europe and the USA. If you are interested in following it up on Dr Google, it’s called heutagogy or self-determined learning. What the theory does is to challenge some education orthodoxies. It does this by virtue of some very convincing research and neuroscience evidence that sheds new light on how the human brain learns. http://heutagogycop.wordpress.com.

One of the tenets of self-determined learning is that the focus should be on the needs, motivations, interests of the learner, and contextually relevant. Thus, it is learner-centric and the focus is very much off the teacher as a guru regarding the delivery of content. This is aided and abetted by the fact that you can get most of what you want to know via the internet and social networking (phone a friend or guru if you need to) as long as you know how to filter the wheat from the chaff. And, indeed, that is a central skill that people in this day and age need to learn. 

So, in my workshops, which are based on self-determined learning principles (it is good to avoid the label of hypocrite if possible), participants are invited to access specific content themselves in groups rather than listen (or not listen) to me talk.  Then we discuss about what they have found and apply what has been learned. I won’t go into details but the idea is to make the process learner centred, enable them to learn from each other by sharing experiences, and to provide an opportunity to pursue a particular area of interest.

What I have found is that ‘expert’ groups, that is people who are experienced trainers and educators, are more likely to be non-compliant compared to the less experienced. On reflection, this is also true when I conduct leadership or organisational development programs that involves people who see themselves as already ‘expert’. Instead of opening themselves up to something new they use their existing mental models and just do what they have always done.

Peter Senge talked about the restrictive nature of mental models in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ and psychologists call the same phenomenon ‘Schema’. They are the result of our values, attitudes, beliefs and experiences. The result is a pretty formidable driver of behaviour that is quite difficult to change. Hence, the tendency to revert to the default position when one sees oneself as an expert.

Those who do not see themselves as expert are much more likely to open themselves up to possibilities. Vulnerability may indeed be a key to learning.

So, is it possible to engage in some personal reflection when confronted with the possibility of learning something new? Can we put our previous experience, what we know, aside for a while and explore? Afterwards we can then integrate the old and the new into something that we can understand and use. It seems to me that this is a very mature and powerful thing to be able to do for anyone who sees themselves as ‘expert’, whatever that is.


  1. Thanks Stewart. Uncomfortably insightful. I think my next reading purchase has "fifth" in the title.

  2. Thanks for this. My sense of experts is of people who have acquired automatic reactions to incidents which reduces decision time but also provides escape hatches from perceiving things. The sensory alerts and cogitative attentiveness needed to study something are replaced by categories of familiarities.
    Since we are not rewarded for being unfamiliar with things, how do we make this ability to read the world from raw data an actual profession?