This Coaching Letter is about mental models. Karl Weick’s book Sensemaking in Organizations opens with a chronology of the codification of battered child syndrome (BCS). It was a radiologist who first published a paper about injuries in children, revealed by X-rays, that were not adequately explained by their parents. The author suggested that intentional abuse was possible. This was in 1946. More articles were published in the 50s, adding up to a couple of dozen cases. Then in 1961, a pediatrician chaired a conference panel and shared data he had aggregated from district attorneys and hospitals, for a total of 749 cases. As a result, an editorial was published in JAMA. Within the next few years, every state enacted laws requiring the reporting of suspected abuse. Estimates of the number of cases stood at 7,000. By 1972, this number had grown to 60,000. By 1976, it was 500,000. You can check out the most recent statistics here. Today, of course, the obligation to report suspected abuse or neglect is firmly established. But the point here is that it took 40 years from initial description of a phenomenon to the recognition of the scale of that phenomenon.
Why the delay? Because doctors, law-makers, and the general public had a mental model of parenting that didn’t really accommodate the idea that some parents intentionally hurt their children. This was complicated by the fact that doctors and educators and others who serve children had to face the realization that something bad could have been happening to those children and the care-takers were blind to it.
I think of the example of BCS as a parable, or allegory. We all have mental models that represent our views of how the world works. And we are faced all the time with challenges to those mental models—what do we do with those challenges? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as a result of some of the reading I’ve been doing.
I got my hands on an advance copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers. I was excited to read it, because I assumed that it would be, at least in part, about listening. But it’s not about that. And I have all kinds of problems with the book, some but not all of which are described in this article in the NYT (I am dying to know what Gladwell thinks of the photograph that accompanies the piece…). But I have other quibbles that I don’t really want to get into, as dissing Malcolm Gladwell has become its own trope, and I think Gladwell is a great writer. So instead, I want to point out that mental models is Gladwell’s stock in trade. Talking to Strangers is really about mental models (OK, just one quibble: he doesn’t use the term mental model or, as far as I remember, any equivalent term, such as schema, paradigm, or worldview, in the book. It annoys me that he describes ideas without connecting them to a larger construct, or giving us language for talking about them more broadly.) I was going to include here a list of Gladwell articles and podcast episodes that do a much better job of illustrating the importance of digging into our mental models so that we can think differently and make better decisions, but that will have to wait. Suffice to say that the Revisionist History podcast is full of mental model takedowns.
I read the NYT’s 1619 Project—or at least the start of it, as more is to come. (There is also a podcast that I haven’t had the chance to listen to yet.) All of the essays expanded what I know about slavery in America, but several of them also changed my mental models—I now think differently about the role of punishment in the criminal justice system, and about the use of data in the slave economy. There was one particular use of language that really brought me up short, and that was the use of the term “forced labor camp” instead of “plantation” in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. Any semblance of Gone with the Wind that was still in my head was replaced by Schindler’s List, and I will never think the same way again.
In addition to all of the above, another contribution of the 1619 Project is the meta- and mega-lesson that some of our mental models go back a long way and run very deep. A similar lesson, this time about how hard it is to see our mental models for what they are, is David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech, This is Water. And the topic of mental models comes up in several previous Coaching Letters, but most apposite here is #72.
Finally, my all-time favorite movie/book about mental models (they are both great) is Moneyball. I could talk about it for hours. The book/movie describes Billy Beane’s attempt to exploit the inefficient mental model of baseball that was prevalent at the time and is frequently hilarious. Thank you, Jim. And a couple of other shout-outs: Thanks to my dad for sending me the link to the Malcolm Gladwell article. Thanks to Michael for getting me back into Revisionist History. And I quizzed my kids on the facts in this part of the 1619 project—see this accompaniment, also—and they did really well, so thank you to the teachers in Mansfield and Region 19 for their part in that. Finally, thanks to everyone who writes and gives feedback on these Coaching Letters, it is always appreciated. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Coaching Letter: StevensonCoachingLetter.org