A recent LinkedIn post talked about how models are good, but myths are bad. Which was a realization for me. I’ve kept myths and models largely separate in my mind, but I realize that’s not the case. Myths are models, just wrong ones. And, I suppose, we need to deal with them as such. (Also, folks hang on to myths and models if they’re tied up with identity, but we should still be able to deal with the logical rationale.)
So, I’m an advocate for mental models. There are a variety of reasons, personal, pragmatic, and principled. Personally, I was gifted a book on mental models by my workmates as I left for graduate school. Pragmatically, they’re useful. On principle, they’re how we reason about the world. Heck, our brains are constantly building them!
The important aspects of models are that they’re predictive (and explanatory). That is, they tell us the outcomes of actions in particular situations. They are models of a small bit of the world, and are used to understand a perturbation of the model. They’re causal, in that they talk about how the world works, and conceptual in that they talk about the elements of the world. They’re incomplete, in that they only need to account for the parts of the world relevant to the particular situation.
Examples include using an analogy of water flowing in pipes for thinking about electric circuits. Or how advertisements use association with valued things or people to induce a positive affect. You can use them to explain what happened, or what will happen. It’s the latter that’s important for the purposes of providing a basis for guiding decisions, and thus their role in learning. They guide us in deciding how to take actions under different circumstances.
Models can be good or bad. The old ‘planets circling a sun’ model of electrons in orbit around a nucleus of protons and neutrons turned out to be inaccurate as our understanding increased. We then moved to probability clouds as a better model. Many of our mistakes come from using the wrong model, for a variety of reasons. We can mistake the situation, or think a model is accurate and useful.
We should avoid models that aren’t appropriate for the situation. Myths are models that aren’t appropriate for any situation. So, for instance, learning styles, generations, ‘attention span of a goldfish’, and ‘images are processed 60K faster than prose’ are examples of myths. They lead people to make decisions that are erroneous, such as providing different learning prescriptions. They are models, because they do categorize the world and lead to prescriptions about what to do. They’re myths, because their implications will lead to decisions that waste time and money.
As the saying goes, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”. They’re wrong because they’re only part of the world. The good ones give us useful predictions, The bad ones lead us to make bad decisions. The useful ones are to be lauded, shared, and used. Myths, however, should be debunked and avoided. Myths are models, but not all models are good. It’s important that I remember that!