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Can mental models facilitate social learning?

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Our most pressing contemporary challenges, such as enhancing food security and tackling climate change, can only be met by bringing together people from different backgrounds with the goal of learning from and with one another. This can seem daunting for social scientists, many of whom, like myself, have very little expert knowledge about how people learn or how to facilitate new learning.

Luckily, those who work in the fields of cognitive science and psychology have given much thought to how people learn. In his widely cited book, Mental Models, Philip Johnson-Laird proposes that people develop internal mental models of how the world works, and we use these to interpret the world around us. This is partly where the phenomenon of confirmation bias comes from, as we interpret even novel information through our familiar ‘cognitive scaffolding’. This isn’t to say these internal models are unchanging, quite the opposite, they are dynamic and respond to new information, hence we can learn and expand our understanding. But what cognitive scientists seem to agree on is that meaningful learning takes place when new information integrates with our existing cognitive structures. For example, someone who is just coming to understand the human circulatory system may rely on the metaphor of an urban road transport network. These sorts of metaphors are essentially a way of integrating something new and complex into an existing cognitive structure.

This means that our mental models are important components of how we understand and interpret the world, and play a role in how we make decisions. It is no surprise then, that social scientists with diverse research interests are paying attention to mental models.

I am currently involved in research at the James Hutton Institute that explores alternative agricultural land management practices in Scotland. It begins with the premise that those with a stake in land management already possess a mental model of the relationship between agricultural and ecological systems. The research uses various qualitative methods to elicit mental models from scientists, policy makers, and farmers. The research team will be looking for areas of shared and divergent understandings and problem definition. In certain instances, we will aggregate mental models to present something like a ‘social cognitive map’ that can capture shared knowledge about agricultural and ecological systems. This approach to representing group knowledge is elaborated on by Michael Paolisso in his discussion of why cultural models are important for more participatory modelling ( /).  My aim is to use these models as active and interactive tools to bring together diverse stakeholders through workshops and public events to better understand the diversity and also potential of alternative land management practices.

A Scientist’s Mental Model of Agro-Ecology

Recent enthusiasm for co-creation and co-learning has highlighted the value of various cognitive tools to facilitate learning and decision making among diverse and sometimes disparate stakeholders. A recent blog by Graeme Nicholas argues that joint problem definition and framing is vital to co-creation and shared problem solving ( ). In particular, he explores the concept of boundary objects, which he describes as a ‘thing’ (a concept or something tangible) that lives in multiple social worlds but has a slightly different meaning or identity in each. Because of these characteristics, boundary objects can elicit discussion from multiple perspectives. Nicholas then goes on to describe several different boundary objects, one of which is the ‘conceptual model’ (there is much potential for terminology fatigue here). Conceptual models are, to quote Nicholas,

“Deliberately provisional, and attempt to represent a chosen system at a glance. As such, a model makes discussible judgements about what is in and what is out of consideration, what interactions are important in understanding how the system works, and whose perspectives are important in understanding and changing the system.”

I hope that the mental models that emerge out of this research may be able to function in this way to improve communication between stakeholders, integrate different perspectives, support social learning, and develop a more well-informed and robust shared knowledge base about the challenges that arise in a transition to more sustainable land management.

Image credit:, 2006

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blogs/can-mental-models-facilitate-social-learning on 28/02/24 05:05:05 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.