Evidence-Based Learning at School

The development of mental models – or why visual methods are so successful

According to the constructivist learning theory new information is linked to meaning when learning. New neural pathways are laid down in the brain to enable this.

In this regard we need to keep the following aspects in mind: the new information learned does not exist in isolation but is retained in accordance with the learner’s pre-existing knowledge. So-called mental models are constructed during this process. “Learning” is therefore an active process which takes place in the pupil’s brain without the teacher being able to observe from without whether the models are correct or not. The teacher will only get any corresponding feedback once the models have already been built.

The models themselves are stored in 2D within a mental map. For this purpose our brains use their own programming language, which we call Mentalese.

Just imagine your way from home to school: You’re also presented with a 2D image in your mind’s eye. If you’d need to explain this to a passer-by, you’d, however, describe the steps sequentially. Go straight up to the traffic lights, turn left, then… Your 2D map is translated into a 1D sequence of information and transformed into spoken language. The inverse is true of the passer-by, who had asked for directions, who’ll re-interpret this sequential information into a 2D map. Everyone is aware that this encoding and decoding process doesn’t always run so smoothly – just like those occasions when the word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember it.

However, of what consequence is this for the business of teaching? You can help the passer-by, who had asked for directions, by not just giving them directions but also by showing them these on a map. In this way the one asking for directions can be assured that their mental model for the directions is correct.

In a classroom setting it can also be helpful to not only explain connections linearly in words but also through the use of images, mind maps, flowcharts etc. This makes it easier to learn the material and aids the learner in creating their own mental models.