Education, or at least learning, must be more than the memorization of facts and routines. Learning is a process of developing ways of looking at the world, frameworks of reasoning, representation, and calculation that we can apply to different situations. Basically, learning is about developing mental models.
A mental model describes a way to think about something. As a result, we should never try to apply a single model to every situation. Why do we need more than one? The investor Charlie Munger, who has mastered many complex systems to massive profit in his day, has said much about mental models:
“… the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.
“What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…
“And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.”
From a test prep perspective, the number of mental models we need to develop can be counted on the fingers of two hands:
- Non-fiction and fiction reading (thesis, story, structure)
- English vocabulary
- Conceptual understanding (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry)
- Problem solving
- Calculation (and calculator use)
- Written English (grammar, punctuation, usage, rhetorical skills)
- Persuasive writing (arguments and counterarguments)
- Test-specific knowledge (SAT, ACT)
- Stress management
- Resource management (time, energy, focus)
The good news is that students have already spent years developing mental models in most of these domains, Even better, the majority of these models will pay off time and time again in college and professional life. So don’t settle for preparation that proposes to teach tips and tricks; look for educators that can teach you how to really think. The SAT and ACT are exams that rewards students with strong mental models.