On Models – Erik Kondo and Rory Miller

Rory and I have a basic disagreement about models. I love them. He doesn’t. No. We are not talking about the beautiful models you see in print or on TV. That a whole different discussion. We are talking about educational models used for teaching.

Rory will explain why he doesn’t like them. But first I will explain why I do.

I see models as teaching tools that provide a framework for understanding. The world is a complex place. Trying to figure out how the world works is a difficult task. Therefore, I see models as a pathway to building a general understanding of a subject. The basic idea is to take a subject and break it down into it’s component parts. Then each part can be examined and discussed both separately and also in combination with the other parts.

Flexible models allow for understanding to grow and become more complex as the person’s understanding of the subject increases. Models provide the student with mental anchoring where he or she can “chunk” information together. As the person’s understanding increases, so does the connections and relationships between the “chunks” increase.

Therefore, I see models as problem solving tools. They are starting points on the journey of understanding.

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” — Box, George E. P.

But,  I do agree that models also have their disadvantages. Models are only representations of reality. They are not reality. As famously stated by mathematician, George Box, they are also invariably wrong to a certain extent.

For example, Newtonian Physics is essentially a model that is wrong under certain conditions. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is a model that is also incorrect under certain other conditions, but it solves some of the flaws of the Newtonian model. So why not skip Newton and go straight to Einstein? Because Einstein’s theory is very hard to understand and it requires a fair amount of prerequisite knowledge. And one practical prerequisite, is to understand the Newtonian model first.

I think that much of the practical problems of the Newtonian model can be mitigated by realizing that it is both an imperfect and limited model.

When it comes to models for conflict management, I think that people run into trouble when they assume that the Model will give them the correct answer to their specific problem. Instead of viewing the Model as a problem solving tool for them to use to come to their own solution, they see the Model as already having the solution.

In this case, blind faith in the Model causes them to be rigid and inflexible in their thinking. This is an example of not having a flexible or growth mindset. People without this type mindset tend to see models in this rigid fashion. As a result, learning a model actually could be detrimental for them.

These are the people who want a definite answer to the question of “If he does this, what should I do?”

This is a different question than “If he does this, what are some of my alternatives?”

Ultimately, I think models are useful for helping people who are willing to teach themselves. This type of person will benefit from a model as a starting point. Then he or she will discard the model in favor of his or her own personalized model or means of understanding.

But there is no telling how a person will use a model. Therefore, I think that if models come with full disclosure of their inherent flaws, then their advantages will out weigh their disadvantages. That is why I use them – a lot.

Here is Rory’s take on models.

Models have their place. In closed systems, models or formulas work very well. A closed system is one in which the conditions are known and there are right and wrong answers. Erik brought up physics. Newtonian physics (I don’t know enough about advanced physics to make the same assertion) is a closed system. There are a handful of known constants and laws and if you know the variables (length of lever, distance to both load and force from fulcrum, amount of force applied) you will a always get the same answer.

Most of what we learn in school are closed systems. Math. Geography. Writing is an interesting one, because the fundamentals of writing (grammar, spelling and even story structure) are taught as a closed system, but good writing can and does break all of the rules. Think of Faulkner. Effective writing is an open system, but we tend to teach it as a closed system.

Conflict management is a classic open system. It is broad and deep. There are many variables and the majority of those are outside of your control, unknown to you, or both. There is no single definition of a win and the exact same outcome in a situation can be interpreted as a loss or a win by two different people and each individual can even change their mind about whether it was a win over time.

Models are used for a lot of reasons. In closed systems, they make sense. Bureaucracies like measurability and open skills are not really measurable. But the nature of the beast is that surviving violence is predicated on adaptability. On changing the situation. On breaking social rules and taboos that try to keep a student on a socially acceptable script. Cheating, in other words. And you can’t make a model for breaking models.

But I think the most common reason people try to apply models to open systems is simply fear. If you can take this ugly, immense, complicated problem and give it nice neat labels and put it in a box, it looks less scary.

That’s classic fear management, not danger management. Willful blindness.

My take, as an instructor, is to normalize the chaos. Our world, life itself, is an open system. We evolved to deal with that level of complexity. Humans rock at dealing with unknowns, if they let themselves.

I do use models in my teaching. Partially because I went through the school system like everyone else and it’s a hard habit to break. But when I use them consciously, it’s never to give answers. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, for instance.

A prescriptive instructor would use Maslow to say, “An assailant working from the security level of the hierarchy will… and so you must…” Used properly (in other words, my way) the same level gives you, “If no one was going to help you and your children were starving, how would you get money for food?” Followed up, after the class has answered the question: “Get it? An addict doesn’t think differently than you, they just have a level of problem very few people in our culture have had to deal with…”

The purpose of models, when I use them well, is to add layers to the depth of understanding. Most models, however, are used to cut out variables and complexity that the instructor is unprepared to deal with.

There is one other reason to use models in an open system, and it hinges on the instructor’s assumptions and biases.

If you assume that your students are intelligent and adaptable, you give them tools and information and trust them to find their own best solutions by their own definitions with their own personal resources. This is the “gains maximization” strategy, looking for the best win.

If, however, you assume your students are stupid and will generally make things worse if left to their own judgment, in that case you will need to rely on models. You need to tell them what to do and be prescriptive. That’s the loss minimization strategy.

I personally reject that point of view. But that’s me.


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