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Schools Should Help Kids Build Robust Mental Models

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What do op-eds, Squawk Box, and SimCity have in common? The are all examples of models -- simplified systems that help us understand the world -- mental models, financial models, and sociopolitical models.

I don't read newspapers anymore. I glance at headlines, but head straight for the last page of several papers to read the opinion pieces. I find that I get enough of a news feed through my iGoogle page, mobile news, TV, and NPR. What I'm really interested in are opinion pieces that reflect one smart person's mental model. Most Op-Eds are second order news -- current events processed through one person's model. They usually interpret events (sense making) and often advocate actions they think will produce positive outcomes (predictions).

I don't trade individual securities, but I like to watch CNBC while I work out because I enjoy listening to people attempt to interpret a dynamic set of inputs. The futures markets are particularly interesting and sophisticated attempts to predict the outcomes of multiple scenarios, like what does Libya have to do with Iowa corn?

The objective of SimCity is to build and operate a city. Simulation games like SimCity simplify millions of social, political, and logistical variables in to a few hundred and collapse decades of time into hours. It's a useful and stimulating lesson in cause and effect. Massively multiplayer online role playing games (like World of Warcraft) are even more complex system.

I haven't factored a polynomial for a decade (and then it was to help my daughter with her homework), but I spend most of the day doing multivariable problem solving. Algebraic thinking is a keystone skill that every young person needs to engage in the idea economy and to be a contributing citizen.

Systems thinking is a step beyond algebraic thinking with hundreds of equations and thousands of variables -- and that's where there's real value-add. Systems thinking is more about differential equations and rate of change than algebra.

A good op-ed from Arianna, David Brooks or Fareed Zakaria, or an interview with investor Warren Buffet, or a game from Will Wright exhibits systems thinking and can influence your own mental model. A trip to a foreign country or a scifi thriller can make you conscious of your own mental mental (a meta-cognative moment).

College should be about systems thinking and a few places understand that. But I think personal digital learning can introduce systems thinking in secondary schools. Core Knowledge advocates would immediately suggest that knowing stuff makes for better mental (and computer) models. They are right, but it's tough pushing kids through a content-centric approach. More efficient drill and practice software will help, but simulations and virtual environments have the potential (like historical fiction) to teach facts as well as systems thinking -- potentially a super-efficient way to build mental models.

Smart schools will help students develop rich mental models by engaging them in systems thinking early and often with fames, sims, and virtual environments.