I was reading this article on Business Insider, I noticed some real good pointers that we as science communicators should consider when developing our tools! The author lists 48 facts, but here’s one fact that I think is very important and relevant to our work.
Understand your audience’s mental and conceptual models
Mental models are the general thought processes of how things would work based on our understanding of world that are often shaped by previous experiences or perceptions. Mental models eventually mould our actions and behaviour. (Carey, 1986). (Susan Carey’s paper on Cognitive Science and Science Education is worth a read)
I love the analogy (though long) the author has used in this article:
“Imagine that you’ve never seen an iPad, but I’ve just handed one to you and told you that you can read books on it. Before you turn on the iPad, before you use it, you have a model in your head of what reading a book on the iPad will be like. You have assumptions about what the book will look like on the screen, what things you will be able to do, and how you will do them—things like turning a page, or using a bookmark. You have a “mental model” of reading a book on the iPad, even if you’ve never done it before.
If you’ve used an iPad before, your mental model of reading a book on an iPad will be different than that of someone who has never used one, or doesn’t even know what an iPad is. If you’ve been using a Kindle for the past year, then your mental model will be different from someone who has never read a book electronically. And once you get the iPad and read a couple of books on it, whichever mental model you had in your head before will start to change and adjust to reflect your experience.”
Conceptual models are created when the person is directly interacting with the tool. Using the iPad example again, although we might have a assumption of how a real book would work, when given an iPad, we tend to figure out how it would work based on the screens and buttons. The system displays is the conceptual model of a book app in terms of screens, buttons etc. The interface of the tool is the conceptual model our brains are introduced to.
What is key in communication, is creating this alignment between the person’s mental and conceptual model. If there is a mismatch, the product, website or information will be hard to learn, use or accepted. This is why we have a generation gap. From a very general perspective, the older we get, the less flexible we are to new products, tools, information etc.
Take for example the digital world. It is evolving so rapidly and trends are changing as I am typing this post. What we need to understand is that mental models are also constantly shifting. And children or what we call digital natives, are the first to adapt to this exponentially shifting realm. This is especially true for teachers who would probably see an ever-changing student persona in the coming years.
On one hand, as teachers and communicators, we need to take a step back and understand the mental models of students. Kids these days would probably cringe at a large storybook. Although at the back of our minds, we know that we need to understand the perception of students but it often ends up as an oversight and we try to a plethora of tools for students but most of the time it is dependent on what we think might intrigue the student. We can never understand what our students needs or wants if we don’t ask them. (Thesis idea anyone?)
On the other hand, it is right about time that teachers and communicators become as equally adapted and evolve with technology as are our digital native younger generation so that we can also have a better picture/assumption of our students’ mental models. We need to change our mental models! Let go of your old mental models because it will hold you back! We need to adjust our mental models to fit the ever-evoloving conceptual models.
This video perfectly encapsulates the above:
Some of you teachers might then ask what if the students’ mental models are wrong, with regards to misconceptions in science. You know that your students’ mental model will not fit with the conceptual model you are introducing. You need to “provide training to prepare the person to create a new mental model” and that just goes back to the basic fundamentals of teaching.
Communication and learning are in essence, give and take. As communicators must learn and evolve as much as the knowledge we impart in others.
The author lists more awesome facts on human psychology and how products should be designed based on these facts like how the reward system motivates us, how culture influences creativity, our perception of colours and patterns, how our brain causes illusions, brain activity during sleep etc, etc, etc.