Mental Models to Move You Forward

Armed with these new ways of thinking, you can reenergize your long-term plans.

By Brittany Keil Last Updated: August 02, 2022

Amidst a pandemic and one of the most tense political climates K-12 education has ever known, long-term planning might feel like wishful thinking. At SchoolCEO, we spend a lot of time talking to superintendents and other school leaders about their hopes and dreams for their districts. Over and over again, we hear variations on the same statement: “We had big plans, but then COVID hit.”

But what does this mean for us now, over two years into a pandemic and in a field that will only keep evolving? As hard as it can be to reenergize plans that were set aside two years ago—and even dream up new ones—there is no time to wait. School leaders must be prepared to build resilient long-term plans. Putting this into practice, though, is easier said than done.

To build viable long-term plans, you need to make sure you’re addressing the right problems—and that your solutions are robust enough to weather whatever surprises crop up. In any organization, it is the role of the executive to strike a balance between adhering to a long-term plan and navigating inevitable short-term switch-ups. As the executive of your district, finding that balance falls to you.

But how do you ensure that you’re focusing on the right problems and solutions in the first place? This is where mental models come in handy.

Beyond Backward Planning

The most common tool for long-term planning is very well known to educators—backward planning, sometimes known as “reverse engineering.” Under this mental framework, you start with an outcome that you desire and then work backward to create goals that will eventually produce your desired result. The concept of backward planning is incredibly formative for most educators—in fact, it’s the foundation for many teachers’ lesson planning. You probably even read Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design at some point during your own learning journey. In the classroom, the desired outcome is content mastery; teachers then work backward to write lessons that support students toward that goal.

Backward planning is useful for a lot of reasons, but helping you get out of your head and think beyond your current problems is chief among them. In the hectic day-to-day work of school administration, getting out of the weeds and building long-term plans takes effort, and backward planning is one way to get there. This is a very basic type of mental model—but it’s not the only one.

What are mental models?

Put simply, mental models are the lenses through which we view the world. They’re ways of thinking. Each of us develops our own go-to mental models based on our experiences, beliefs, and ideas—whether consciously or unconsciously.

Mental models are basically lenses through which you can re-examine a familiar problem in order to come to a novel solution. In short, a mental model is a framework that you use to make sense of the world.

Having a consistent mental model we fall back on is, in a lot of ways, a good thing. It creates precedents, making it easier for us to make decisions rather than approach every new encounter from scratch. For example, whether you know it or not, you probably use a mental model when you go grocery shopping. You don’t look at every product each time you walk through the aisles; instead, you might always walk through to see the produce specials first and then use a list to quickly navigate the rest of the aisles.

Everyone uses mental models to understand their challenges. The problem is that once you’re an adult, you probably unconsciously use the same three or four familiar mental models over and over. No mental model is perfect 100% of the time, and falling into the same ways of thinking every time will rarely result in any inspired ideas. Fortunately, there are hundreds of models that you can incorporate into your thinking to help you reexamine familiar problems and come to novel solutions. Learning to view your plans through these new lenses won’t just give you new ways of seeing your problems; it will also help you become a better thinker and, by extension, a better planner.

Mental Models to Push Your Thinking

As you learn new mental models, you will probably recognize them as familiar, even if you didn’t know the specific terminology we use here. While hundreds of models exist, a few are a lot more common—and well researched—than the rest. Here are good ones to get started with as you dip your toes into new ways of thinking.

First Principles Thinking

There is a famous anecdote about a woman who cooks ham for a dinner party. One of her guests asks her why she cuts the end of the ham off, and the woman replies that she doesn’t know; that’s just how her family cooks ham. She later asks her mother, who admits that she doesn’t know why they do it, either. They then ask the grandmother, who admits that she started cutting the ham out of necessity; her first oven was too small to fit a full-sized ham. The strategy, it turns out, was solving a problem that no longer existed.

This story is a prime example of our first mental model, first principles thinking. In this mental model, you interrogate a challenge to strip it of its inherent assumptions. For example, you might think that your mother cut the ends off her hams to improve their taste—but that would be an assumption. You work your way through these assumptions until you come to the titular “first principle”—the most basic verifiable fact that can’t be reduced any further. Once you get to this first principle, you are better equipped to understand the root of your problem, and hence find a solution.

The true masters of first principles thinking are children, who love to question “why” when faced with a seemingly arbitrary “fact.” Why do they have to sleep in their bed? Why do they have to go to bed at all? Why is it dark? Why does the sun go down? While these questions are likely exhausting to a tired parent, constantly asking “why” can help you interrogate a problem to its foundation.

Let’s apply this thinking to something simple: your district’s careers page. Why do you have a careers page in the first place? You might assume that the role of such a page is solely to inform potential applicants of job opportunities. But thanks to websites like Indeed and LinkedIn, potential candidates probably already know that your openings exist. The function of the page, then, shouldn’t be to inform them of jobs, but rather to convince them to take that next step and apply. This means you should be advertising your school’s culture—not just its vacancies.

The Map is Not the Territory

The Map is Not the Territory is another mental model that can help you discern the difference between representations of reality and reality itself. Every map is a simplification of the area it represents; some maps focus on roads, others focus on topography, and so on. After all, a single map with every small hill, stream, or gulch on it would be overwhelming and impractical for most casual map readers.

As a mental model, The Map is Not the Territory can help people understand any kind of representation of reality. We’re often confused when we see a representation of something and mistake it for the whole truth, regardless of whatever “unmappable” qualities exist within the data or plan. For example, an architect will use a series of blueprints to plan a new building. One plan might be for the electrical work needed, another for plumbing, and still another for framing. While each of the plans represents the same building, they are all limited in what they represent. In a sense, all plans are like this. It is our job to be aware of their purposes—as well as their limitations.

This mental model might be especially useful for school leaders when interpreting student data, like test scores. In a way, any score report is just one representation of your district, not the entire truth. For example, let’s say a test is given to two class periods of students and the results show that the second period class reads, on average, at a lower grade level than the first period class. Through the Map is Not the Territory model, you might seek to understand why this perceived reality is the case—and what information you’re missing—rather than take these results at face value. You might find, for example, that the second period class’s test was interrupted by a fire alarm, which disrupted their focus even though they were able to make up the time.

Antifragility

The antifragility model is the idea that adversity is a strengthening force, and that any plan or idea can only benefit from the chaos that besieges it. While we usually see disorder and chaos as external threats to a plan’s strength, the antifragility model views them as integral parts of proving that the system or plan is healthy and sustainable. The human body is a perfect example of antifragility. The body—from its muscles to its immune system—actually needs adversity in order to grow stronger. Just as exposure to viruses makes for a more robust immune system, muscles and bones get stronger through the exertion of physical exercise.

In some ways, antifragility is similar to what we in education call a “growth mindset.” Rather than focusing on the negative impacts that a challenge presents, you should see it as an opportunity to make your plan or project more resilient. For example, many districts that started school lunch pick-up during the pandemic have kept these programs up during summer breaks, even though schools have long since reopened. Despite the problems it caused, the unexpected adversity of COVID-19 also spurred long-lasting innovation.

The idea of antifragility can be hard to swallow—especially if you’ve seen most of your district’s long-term plans buckle under the unpredictability of the past two years. On the other hand, schools couldn’t thrive without accounting for at least some chaos. As unexpected as the pandemic was, we’re already seeing signs that our school systems are stronger—and more inclusive—coming out of it.

Inversion

There’s a famous quote by Charlie Munger, the long-time business partner of Warren Buffett, that sums up our final mental model, inversion, pretty well: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” The concept of inversion involves turning all of your ideas around goal-planning on their heads. Rather than thinking about your desired result, imagine the absolute worst-case scenario—then focus on how to avoid that outcome.

For example, let’s say that you have a goal around improving teacher work satisfaction. Ordinarily, you would approach this goal by thinking of ways to improve teacher morale or working conditions. Under the inversion model, though, you would instead focus on what a total failure of this goal would look like. What would it take for every teacher to quit? What would bring staff morale to an all-time low? And what can you do to make sure that doesn’t happen?

On the surface level, inversion seems deceptively simple, but it can help you reach a new level of clarity around your problems. As important as goal-setting is, it’s equally important to identify the rock bottom that you never want to hit—and figure out what guardrails you can put in place to make sure you don’t end up there.

We know it can be hard to change the way you think. Patterns are comforting, and switching things up can sometimes shake your confidence. But it is the role of the educator—and the leader—to find the best plans, strategies, and paths forward. If you always approach decisions with the same mindset, you will always arrive at the very same conclusions that have fallen flat before. But by understanding your problems in different ways, you can find new, innovative paths toward progress.

So as you continue to plan for uncertain futures, consider approaching potential pitfalls differently than you typically would. The mental models we’ve discussed here can help you identify the sources of your problems, understand the limitations of your own viewpoints, and test the strength of your strategies. No plan will ever be foolproof—but by thinking a little differently, you can build stronger long-term plans for your schools, staff, and students.


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