Sunday / May 19

For True School Change, Understand Your Mental Models

Mental model is the common term used for our beliefs, values, and assumptions. Our actions are driven by what our life has already taught us. This deep well of experience is composed of our mental models, as well as our hard-earned life lessons. Our life experiences are precious to us and demand respect. If you want real learning and change, ignore them at your peril.

To change a school requires adults willing to examine their mental models, and learn from this examination.

New mental models will drive professional growth, and new teaching and learning. Often they provide a productive base for action. Sometimes they lead us astray. And at other times we get the confusion from contradictory mental models deeply embedded inside us.

True learning involves going where you have never been before, and this requires cognitive restructuring. When we shift a mental model we have impact that ripples widely through our life. The challenge is that we cannot see our mental models clearly on our own.

Here are some examples of personal mental models:

I am not very good at expressing myself clearly

I am strong under pressure

Examples of school staff mental models:

Children socially construct their own knowledge

Classroom management is a curriculum issue

Children must learn to take personal responsibility for their own learning

Teaching requires forming learning relationships


Part of the human condition is walking around assuming that others see us and hear us as we see and hear ourselves.

For growth and learning, we need others to help us “see” ourselves and our mental models.

Having colleagues facilitatively question you is one powerful way to help you identify your mental models.

Facilitative questioning is a process developed by Jim Butler and John Edwards for helping a person get feedback on the mental models (beliefs, values, and assumptions) that lie behind their thinking and their actions. The process is based on the work of Carl Rogers, the founder of humanist psychology. We have used this process for over thirty years to help people make deep change in the ways they act. It is easy to do; you just need three people and a private space. And a dash of self-discipline (smile). The results are well worth it.

There are three roles in practicing facilitative questioning:

  1. The person who wants to get greater insight into the mental models behind their actions. This person chooses one questioner to help them do this, and a second person: a recorder/time keeper. The person being facilitatively questioned shares as openly as possible what they want to explore: their actions and outcomes; their thinking; their beliefs, values and assumptions; and/or their action plan.
  1. The facilitative questioner. This person pays total attention to the person being questioned. The questioner only asks questions to try to understand exactly what the person is saying. The questioner does not share their own experiences or their own ideas. There are no suggestions and no attempt to fix the person up (even if they ask for that). There is total respect that the person can find their own insights into their own issues and their own mental models. This is the hardest role in our experience. The temptation to “help” is massive in our profession.
  1. The recorder/timekeeper. This third person focuses on listening closely to what the person being questioned says. The recorder records as well as they can, in the journal of the person being questioned, the mental models they hear/infer. The recorder says nothing. They also keep an eye on the time.

The person is questioned for 6 minutes.

Then for 1 minute the recorder reads back what they have recorded, then they hand back the journal.

Each interview takes 7 minutes.

With three people involved, this process for learning and practicing takes 21 minutes.


(from: Edwards, J. and Martin, B. (2016) Schools That Deliver. California: Corwin Press.)

QUESTIONER: What area for improvement do you want to target?

(sigh) My time management.

QUESTIONER: What exactly do you mean by time management?

 I would like a tidy desk.

QUESTIONER: Why is that?

Well, a tidy desk means a tidy mind.

QUESTIONER: Do you believe that?

No … but most other people do, and my desk is really untidy.

QUESTIONER: What do you believe?

Well … I don’t feel on top of things.

QUESTIONER: Can you give me some examples of this?

When the end of the day comes I seem to have more jobs still to do than I had at the start of the day.

QUESTIONER: How does that make you feel?

I feel like pulling my hair out, I just feel things piling up and piling up.

QUESTIONER: What do you think you might do about that?

Well Michael is really good at being organized and calm, and I see him keeping a planner.

QUESTIONER: What sort of planner?

I think he got it from some course he went on, so maybe I could ask him to show it to me, and tell me how he uses it.

QUESTIONER: And how do you think that might help you?

If I could just slow down and give myself time to plan, I think that would be a great start. I actually tried that a few years ago.

QUESTIONER: And what happened?

I got better for a while but I am not very good at sticking with things.

QUESTIONER: Why is that?

Both my parents were like that, but I guess I should not blame them. Maybe it is because I am not really convinced that it is worth the effort. I sort of get by as it is.

QUESTIONER: What would convince you?

Not sure really. Maybe checking at the start and end of each day to see how my stress levels are?

QUESTIONER: How might you do that?

Not sure, what would you do?

QUESTIONER: Have you tried measuring your stress levels before?

Yes I just rated my levels on a ten-point scale.

QUESTIONER: Did that work?

Actually it was quite simple. I think I could do that again.

QUESTIONER: And how would you use the data?

Maybe keep notes and see what patterns come up.

QUESTIONER: Do you have any other possibilities in mind?

Yes, I have thought about maybe ….

And on it goes…

As you can see in the example above, from just two minutes of facilitative questioning the person has revealed at least 20 mental models, which the recorder will have inferred and written down. Try counting them in the script:

I believe that my time management is poor

I assume that people see my untidy desk and think that means I have an untidy mind.

I believe that I am not on top of things.

I value time and space to think.

I assume I can learn from my past experience with monitoring stress levels.

I believe I am not good at sticking with things.

These are just six mental models. Can you find the rest?


The person questioning constantly keeps trying to understand exactly what the person meant. In so doing, they help the person get clearer himself or herself. Note that they refuse to offer suggestions, even when asked. They gently refer the person back to their own experience. They do not judge. They encourage the person to come up with their own action plan.

Through Facilitative Questioning each staff member gains access to his or her own mental models. We learn what others infer as they listen to us. Such reflective processes are at the core of high-impact professional learning. There are no shortcuts. What we believe, individually and collectively, can impede progress personally or at a school-wide level. This is also what propels us and our school forward.


The key is to use such powerful reflective processes to reveal, negotiate, and align our mental models. Once mental models are aligned; what happens next? If you would like to explore the practical details for how this creates school cultures of delivery, you will find them in Schools That Deliver. The narrative is carried by voices from schools across six countries that are currently delivering. They tell it how it is, in lived reality. Every process has been tested and refined under the heat of practice, addressing the current realities in education. This is a learning journey worth taking.

Written by

John is Managing Director of Edwards Explorations, an Australia-based company concerned with exploring and developing human potential. He has worked inside many leading Australian and international companies, and sporting organizations, to research and deliver powerful cultures of learning. He has dedicated a large part of his life to the work that forms the basis of this book; helping school communities create the schools they know are right for their children. Dr Edwards is one of the few international researchers to turn his research into award-winning practice in education, in business and industry, and in high performance sport.

Bill Martin loves working inside schools to build positive learning environments for children. He taught in primary and middle schools for 17 years, was a secondary assistant and high school principal for 16 years. On two occasions he led large schools to win State and National Blue Ribbon awards for excellence. Since 2003 he has worked with over 180 schools across six countries to support efforts to create powerful learning cultures. He has presented invited addresses at International Conferences on Thinking in New Zealand, the U.K., USA, Australia, Sweden, Spain and Malaysia. He has been a keynote presenter at the International Conference on Ignorance. Bill has served on a United Nations team to make recommendations for the reform of secondary education in Kuwait. He has designed and facilitated long-term professional development programs to grow leadership capacity for the Tonsberg Kommune in Norway, and the Varberg and Kungsbacka Kommunes in Sweden. In Lexington Public Schools, Bill served as the Smaller Learning Community Technical Advisor for the district’s five high schools.

John and Bill are the authors of Schools That Deliver.

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