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Newton's Mental Model--How does it affect action habits?

By D J Lancaster

February 23, 1998

(Special note: The following is the text of an article posted on the ADPRIMA site discussion section shortly after it began operations in September 1997.  I thought the piece by D J Lancaster was thoughtful, well written and important. About three years ago, I got an email from her husband saying that D J had passed away, but that he wanted me to know that she thought highly of my site and the work it contained. I never knew D J in an way except from a few posts on the ADPRIMA discussion section. However, I am including this post and several others by her in the section of Thought Provoking Commentary in memory of an early visitor who had something important to say, and did so in a compelling way).

 Bob Kizlik, ADPRIMA Webmaster, November 25, 2006

Note: It is now March 21, 2014, and in rereading this piece by Ms. Lancaster, I am more convinced than ever that what she had to say back in 1997 could benefit the many so-called "education reformers" out there by providing a bit of context for their efforts.

Bob Kizlik


First of all, what is a mental model? Peter Senge, author of the Fifth Discipline defines mental models as "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior."

In recent decades, economic threat has persuaded corporate giants to become increasingly aware of their 'mental models'. In dealing with offshore competition and higher costs of doing business they have literally had to unbind themselves from their static post ware assumptions and install new frameworks designed to bend with the ever changing socio/economic landscape. In fact, they have had to overhaul the very methods and means by which they seek solution and economic surety.

In this moment of severe and rapid change, it is critical that we, as individuals, examine our own mental models. Our mental models form the dictums on which our action habits (or lack thereof) are based.

Today, we stand at the gateway to a new coagulation of principle, procedure, and discovery. But for us to participate in this extraordinary new dimension of possibility, we have first to understand the overall impact and consequence of Newton's mechanistic vision..

 "Because Newtonian physics was able to explain a remarkable large number of physical phenomena", wrote Pagels, "from the movement of planets to the kinetic motion of tiny particles, it became the model for human knowledge. "The mind itself was thought to be nothing more than an extremely complex mechanical device; and since mind itself must come from matter, it too must be subject to the same laws.”

 As the strength of Newton's observation gained momentum from century to century, domestic, social, and political life expressed more and more the values and attitudes of deterministic universe.

The schools were no exception. They too came to be dominated by Newton's model for 'how the world really works'. Behavioral Science, a relatively new department of human endeavor, was born from this same mechanistic understanding. Behaviorist, John Watson, defined that task in the following way, " The interest of the behaviorist in man's doing is more than the interest of a spectator. He wants to control man's reactions as the physical scientists want to control and manipulate other natural phenomena. It is the business of behavioristic psychology is to be able to predict and control human activity."

By 1918, American schools assimilated the behavioral outlook. For the first time in American educational history "the theory of evolution applied to the mind was used by educational psychologists as a basis for building a new theory of learning by conditioning."

Following the deterministic logic imposed by Newton's seemingly irrefutable testimony of the 'way the world really works' lead to the establishment of a quantitative pedagogy. Under this umbrella of reason, engineering consent by choosing a predisposed set of facts would, if followed lawfully and enforced consistently throughout the American population, produce an homogenous order expressing the harmony and natural efficiency, the same as that observed in the motion of planets and other natural bodies.

It is the behavioral aspect of this kind of engineering by conditioning that is cause for alarm today. Ingraining the facts and how those facts are to be interpreted from one static observer point effects how individuals will be able to react, respond, and participate in their environment.

Knowing now what we know of the universe, we no longer exist in a clockwork universe careening along in the time-space continuum toward an unalterable destiny.

The future in fact, has not yet happened, and it is evident we have many possible future worlds to choose from. We have only to observe their existence or possible existence and devise the language necessary to establish the life style system we desire and can succeed in.

Operating on a limited glimpse of the way the world really works can lead to unpredictable and life threatening consequence. If we can illustrate the conditioned mind as knowing what it knows because it has 'collected' (let's for the sake of example call them) picture cards, some files having more cards than others; we can see that the carrying around of these picture cards from one generation to another will hold in place whatever the composite of these card images enables. Dialogue and response habits will serve this creation of thought unconsciously. We have an eminent need to evaluate where the instilment by drill and repetition of these card files and the subsequent demand for their use has lead and will continue to lead us.
Not only must we be concerned with the input/output question, but we must be equally concerned with the behavior of the system that regulates and force feeds the input/output, for the actualizing of how the system behaves, sets in place a tacit image of the who, why and how of learning itself.

For more than a century, our children, under government mandate, have been filed in a desk where they must sit still and attentive for hours and hours, interrupted briefly for lunch and restroom breaks. They cannot talk except to respond to teachers and they cannot move about and interact. They are taught, in essence, to live, and think, and succeed alone. When a child's natural longing to share communication with their school desk neighbor bubbles out, he or she is bad, wrong, not fitting into the program.

Under the law, teachers and administrators are obliged to insure the classroom protocol is secured; and that the input/output cycle remains uniform and consistent with outcome objectives. To secure that the model for human knowledge is not breached, a device is utilized to measure the systems integrity. We call this testing.

Every human participant (considered a statistical unit) insures the integrity of the model for which all our action habits of mind and body have been modified to uphold. Unless the measure, determined by percentage points depreciates significantly, it is our assumption the system is working efficiently and the world of our engineered consent is functioning adequately.

Because a system is functioning well under its own set of ordinances and statistical manipulations, does not mean it is functioning up to par in the way the world really is and is becoming. The general principle under which our schools now labor is based on the assumption that if we control what goes in, we will control what comes out. If we give a student a piece of information then ask for it back in a few days on a test and he or she returns it to us we say 'good'. Now you get an A and you are a good student'. We have selected an input, fed it into the student's mental apparatus where he has retained it and fed it back to us upon request. We believe that when the right answers are plugged into the right question by enough students that there is an automatic green light to the future.

But let's look at this process from a different point of view. This method of instruction is completely 'local' in the physics sense of the word. Each student is a location. Each child receives instruction and files what he/she can retain into the mental card file box. At test time, judgment is passed on each student's ability to reproduce the file cards; the more you are able to store the better your grade. Each student has his/her own report card, his/her own individual success. What Jill does - does not effect John. John's ability to remember does not effect Jill's ability to remember, etc. Of course we now know that indeed what Jill or John does or does not do in the classroom will effect them and others on a day to day basis at some point in the future.
While input is a major concern and not be treated lightly, control of the output is a far greater threat to the well being of our nation. The fact that we are exposed repeatedly to facts about Columbus, war dramas, the legacy of presidents and diplomats, safety tips for walking and bicycling, how to dress for the cold, the four food groups, pronouns, nouns and verbs, magnets, levers, clouds and atmospheric layers, etc., in our formative years does not effect our action habits. What does influence how we will ultimately behave is achieved in the output process.

Our action habits are largely influenced by the consistent manipulation of how we utilize the data stored in our information files. Formatting our action habits begins with the first test. The teacher signals to each location a series of relevant terms and dates about a particular event, region, or topic. After a few days of discussion and work sheets, the teacher will provide a prompting device (test) that will enable a student to relate the facts back to a place, or artificial location. If they succeed in plugging in the right facts or assumptions that relate to a right question, they are rewarded. If they are unable to make the correct association between answer and question, they will be given an impression of failure. Failure and success both being determined by their relationship to the static indicator of what it means to be educated within the barriers of a particular model for order. This custom of sitting still, absorbing fact, then plugging facts back to a pre-ordered arrangement of how those facts are to be used, establishes our first action habit link with what we define as social order.

This way of behaving carried out over and over again in the course of years, sets into place a very deep disposition to plug in, and establishes a bias for how we act in relationship to our data files. As long as there is an appearance that there is something out there for us to plug into ()be it college, job, civic event, concert, etc), we experience a surety of good citizenship. The reward system inherent in quantitative programming instills in us a sense of achievement simply because we have been able to store data. There would be nothing stored in our files to indicate that our action habit of plugging in may be ineffectual if and when the model for order for which these action habits and thought processes were engineered for, undergoes a radical make over in response to economic reforms stemming from a tightening surplus base, technological advances, and stiffer competition around the globe. By the early 80's, it became apparent to the corporate world that global competition had set upon the country and everyone was vulnerable. It took awhile to notice that, for the most part, American companies were responding as if their hands were tied behind their back, while the economic engines of Japan, Korea, and Europe dumped product after product on our shores.

Realignment with a changed economic arena required the complete reconceptualization of corporate culture.

Now, as corporations move toward even higher levels of restructuring awareness and have their momentum directed toward reinventing themselves on a day to day basis, there can be no certainty that how they will act today will be how they will act tomorrow. Technological advances, economic competition, environmental challenges and greater social and scientific awareness are converging in such a way as to set us on a new course toward the 21st century. When goals are 'fixed and thing orientated' as they have been for most of this century, behavioral modification techniques are of some benefit; but when the 'trick' changes and goals assume an intangible ambiguity, techniques stylized to contract focus and to control response become detrimental.

"Once a bureaucratic organization of knowledge finds concrete expression in real life institutions--corporations or schools", wrote Tofler, "political pressures, budgets and other forces freeze the cubby holes and channels into place. Which tend to freeze the organization of knowledge into place, obstructing the reconceptualizations that lead to radical discovery."

For two decades now, the people, the media, and the corporations have spent enormous time and resources demanding that Government schools change. These efforts to change or save the system have not succeeded and are often a case of too little too late. Government schools are welded into position by a network of law. Largely these 'reforms' are merely adding up the appearance of change by financial and cosmetic policy shifting. If there is to be a change in the structure to learning itself, emphasis has to be laid on changing the law to free the schools for reinvention. Our success will be found in liberating ourselves from a deeply ingrained static definition of what a school is, especially what a public education is.

The idea that public school (in the traditional sense of the word) is being competed with by private or alternate models for learning is a gross deception. There is no competition in reality. Each school is only a part of a larger learning system in which the purpose for their being is to prepare a student for what he/she may encounter in life.

As we all know, the knowledge bloom of the last three decades has been of such enormity that no one counsel for educational excellence can harness or neatly arrange a knowledge package that will benefit all economic and life style prospects. It is time that we take a very clear-headed assessment of the most fundamental and basic purpose for schools. For generations, we trained actors for a stage play in which, 1) surplus was plentiful and cheap, 2) jobs were abundant, well paying, and a life long endeavor, and 3) America simply could not fail economically, environmentally or globularly in terms of technological/manufacturing domination. But as has been stated, the play and the stage has changed and will continue to change more and more rapidly. America must embrace a legitimate structural change; a change that will alter

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