Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

21 April 2015

Why models matter

Clark @ 7:52 AM

In the industrial age, you really didn’t need to understand why you were doing what you were doing, you were just supposed to do it.  At the management level, you supervised behavior, but you didn’t really set strategy. It was only at the top level where you used the basic principles of business to run your organization.  That was then, this is now.

Things are moving faster, competitors are able to counter your advances in months, there’s more information, and this isn’t decreasing.  You really need to be more agile to deal with uncertainty, and you need to continually innovate.   And I want to suggest that this advantage comes from having a conceptual understanding, a model of what’s happening.

There are responses we can train, specific ways of acting in context.  These aren’t what are most valuable any more.  Experts, with vast experience responding in different situations, abstract models that guide what they do, consciously or unconsciously (this latter is a problem, as it makes it harder to get at; experts can’t tell you 70% of what they actually do!).  Most people, however, are in the novice to practitioner range, and they’re not necessarily ready to adapt to changes, unless we prepare them.

What gives us the ability to react are having models that explain the underlying causal relations as we best understand them, and then support in applying those models in different contexts.  If we have models, and see how those models guide performance in context A, then B, and then we practice applying it in context C and D (with model-based feedback), we gradually develop a more flexible ability to respond. It’s not subconscious, like experts, but we can figure it out.

So, for instance, if we have the rationale behind a sales process, how it connects to the customer’s mental needs and the current status, we can adapt it to different customers.  If we understand the mechanisms of medical contamination, we can adapt to new vectors.  If we understand the structure of a cyber system, we can anticipate security threats. The point is that making inferences on models is a more powerful basis than trying to adapt a rote procedure without knowing the basis.

I recognize that I talk a lot in concepts, e.g. these blog posts and diagrams, but there’s a principled reason: I’m trying to give you a flexible basis, models, to apply to your own situation.  That’s what I do in my own thinking, and it’s what I apply in my consulting.  I am a collector of models, so that I have more tools to apply to solving my own or other’s problems.   (BTW, I use concept and model relatively interchangeably, if that helps clarify anything.)

It’s also a sound basis for innovation.  Two related models (ahem) of creativity say that new ideas are either the combination of two different models or an evolution of an existing one.  Our brains are pattern matchers, and the more we observe a pattern, the more likely it will remind us of something, a model. The more models we have to match, the more likely we are to find one that maps. Or one that activates another.

Consequently, it’s also one  of the things I push as a key improvement to learning design. In addition to meaningful practice, give the concept behind it, the why, in the form of a model. I encourage you to look for the models behind what you do, the models in what your presented, and the models in what your learners are asked to do.

It’s a good basis for design, for problem-solving, and for learning.  That, to me, is a big opportunity.


  1. Well positioned Clark and I must say I can empathise with you saying you’re a “collector of models” – I find that I’m doing it too!

    To my mind, one of the greatest challenges we have in L&D is to be able to show “what good looks like”. Very often, “good” is shown in terms of current high performers, and whilst that’s a step in the right direction it’s just that – a step, not a destination. With models we can show
    1. What the ultimate goal (at least as currently perceived) looks like.
    2. Where an organisation/ group is at the moment. And
    3. The pathways to fast-track progress.

    And finally, I find that models create a great basis for collaboration; on the basis that digital publishing reverses the traditional publishing sequence (into write/ publish/ review) they provide a great way to get additional input and to create mind-share.

    Keep the models coming,please, Clark!

    Comment by AlanB — 6 May 2015 @ 2:42 AM

  2. […] allowed conversation and what’s not.  To put it another way, metaphors are the basis for mental models that explain and predict what happens. But metaphors and models simplify things, making certain […]

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