Mental Models & Schemas

Mental Models

Senge identifies mental models of one of the five disciplines that form the foundations of a learning organization (the other four being systems approach to learning, personal mastery, building a shared vision and team learning). Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions and generalizations that influence how humans understand their world and take action. As noted in the discussion of cognition and memory, individuals are frequently unaware of their mental models and the effect they have on behavior. Tacit mental models can be a barrier to implementing change. It is suggested that two skills will assist in managing mental models: reflection - requires thinking to be slowed down to allow awareness of how mental models are formed to come forward (the ability to recognize leaps of abstraction; inquiry - examination of the interaction with others (making assumptions known, stating data on which assumptions are based, being authentic in the inquiry) (Senge, 1994).


Knowledge is internalized when facts, abstractions of situations etc. are encoded and placed in long term memory. Further internalization occurs when the encoded knowledge is organized by developing relationships between knowledge units and is used to develop new opinions, perspectives and judgments. Internalization seems to be a hierarchical process of: transferring new knowledge in the form of information into long term memory and episodes into episodic memory; analyzing and interpreting information to build patterns, scripts are built from events and episodes; building associative links; chunking into knowledge units into larger abstractions, schemas are formed from scripts and episodes; developing new knowledge from focused or intense reasoning; organizing knowledge to increase access, index knowledge for storage in lexical part of semantic memory. Embedded within the internalization hierarchy above are definitions that are definitions that are helpful in understanding how knowledge may become routine (such as the desired savings behavior in ). Events are the isolated occurrences within a given situation and are concrete, detailed and normally observable. Episodes relate to an independent incident or scene that is part of a larger context and episodes unlike events have meaning. Scripts are general sequences that underlie a referenced type of situation and include general expectations and directions. Schemas are mental models by which both static and dynamic situations can be understood; it is a plan or scheme for a class of situations. Routines are regular, unvarying procedures that inform expectations and handle a specific kind of situation. Routines are by definition detailed, concrete and inflexible. As individuals become more familiar with a situation they internalize their knowledge and are able to respond almost automatically. Paradoxically knowledge in these situations does not require a deep understanding of the situation but may in fact be based on shallow, operational and concrete knowledge (Wiig, 1993).

It is interesting to note that those who have been introduced to abstract and theoretical aspects of general situations may never build the practical routines required to perform in a situation. They are only able to talk smart, not do smart (Pfeffer & Sutton, 1999).

Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. (1999). The Knowing Doing Gap: How smart companies turn knowledge into action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline : The art and practice of the learning organization: Currency/Doubleday.

Wiig, K. (1993). Knowledge management foundations: Thinking about thinking - How people and organizations create, represent, and use knowledge. Arlington TX: Schema Press.