By now if you have been reading these posts, you realize that understanding mental models is an essential tool for thinking about systems. Mental models, for lack of a better definition, are the lenses we put on the external world. Most of our lenses are different colors and hues making common understanding difficult. If I use a red lens and you use a blue lens, we are bound to see the world differently.

Recently, I have been reading a lot about mental models and how they can be used to understand the world of education and the organizations in which we as educators work.


What I found is that there are useful models that we can share that help us see and similarly understand the world. They help change our lenses to the same color. A key leadership strategy to use in a VUCA world is to help everybody see the world in which you navigate together through a set of similar lenses.

In today’s VUCA world, the following seven mental models can help us understand not only schools but the complex world in which we live.  These models help simplify the complex.

First & Second Order Thinking: This model refers to anticipating the results of taking some action. First order thinking is anticipating the closest results while second, third, fourth order and on is anticipating the next outcome and the subsequent next, and the next and so on. This model is essential in that it helps you predict and prevent long-term problems. As an educational leader, this model is highly useful and versatile for all decision making. For instance, let’s say you want a change to happen, so you order it done. The result could be compliance which you anticipated, but long term actions could be complaints to your boss or a long-term degradation of trust which you didn’t predict.

Inversion: This mental model is a thinking tool that helps with problem-solving and decision making. The premise is that you invert the timeline of a problem and start at the end and work backward or start at the opposite end. This model is essential in that it also helps you anticipate obstacles toward the resolution of a problem. For example, you have noticed the last two weeks of school have become a waste of time with little learning happening. So rather than traditionally building the calendar, invert the problem and design in useful, worthy activities for the last two weeks.

Churn: This mental model comes from the business world in which companies know every year they are bound to lose a certain number of customers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, they must always be looking for new customers. In human systems, there are losses of people. In schools, we lose students and families who move; we lose teachers who retire or transfer. Therefore, no school is ever the same from year to year. As a mental model of educational leaders, you need to use this model to anticipate the implications of the ongoing churn.

Entropy: This mental model, defined as the lack of order or gradual decline into disorder comes from the world of physics. This model is essential in that it shows us many things naturally move toward chaos. For instance, in schools, we do much work up front on some change initiative, but after a certain period, the effort seems to dissipate. In a sense, the energy has moved out of the “system” toward entropy. This loss of energy is why it is so hard to sustain changes and initiatives.

Feedback Loops: In any complex system, feedback loops exist that transfer information between elements of the system whereby A causes B which influences A and C. In systems, homeostasis or continual balance of the system is a critical way a system regulates itself like the temperature of a house. Understanding feedback loops is essential during a change to know which loops you can and should amplify and ones you shouldn’t. For instance, if your school culture behaves in a certain way, adding new and different components may cause the “system” to move out of homeostasis and result in excessive disruption trying to push it back into homeostasis.

The Tragedy of the Commons: This mental model comes from general systems theory and states that in a system a shared resource quickly depletes over time without an individual responsible for the wellbeing of the fund. Understanding the Tragedy of the Commons helps us see instances where a resource could easily run out without oversight. For example in a state I used to work in, all transportation miles were reimbursed by the state as long as they were educationally related. However, educators in the state used this policy to their advantage to argue for more and more field trips until the state stopped it. In this mental model, people derive more benefit than cost and therefore deplete the resource in fear of missing out.

Emergence: From complex systems theory, emergence is the idea that higher level behavior comes from or emerges from lower order components. This model is attractive in that it helps explain how certain behaviors develop or appear over time. For instance, a new class of students introduced into a high school every year leads to new, emergent behaviors. A group of teachers who work together over numerous years will create an emergent culture over time.

All of these mental models emerged from other disciplines but can help us understand schools as organizations and the broader educational landscape. While it is vital that we use mental models such as these to recognize problems in our own organizations, it is also important to note that many mental models exist in education. My parting question is what mental models need to explicitly clear in your organization?


Mental models: The best way to make intelligent decisions (109 models explained). Retrieved from