The school leader: using mental models effectively

Jan. 15, 2020
Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans

Headteacher, Farmor’s School

In the first of two posts on how school leaders draw on their expertise to solve educational problems, headteacher and author, Matthew Evans, considers the mental models which guide expert decision making.

A while ago, I was getting on with some work in my office when there was a polite knock at the door. In came one of my senior team. “Sorry to bother you,” he said, “but can I borrow your schema?”

It may sound strange, but I instantly knew what he meant. “Yeah, what’s the problem?” I asked.

He proceeded to describe a situation involving one of our students. It was a complex problem; one for which there was no right answer, and there were a number of possible ways forward.

When he finished explaining, he admitted that he lacked the necessary reference points to know how to deal with the matter. He knew how he thought he should proceed, but there was nothing similar enough in his experience to give him the confidence to act independently. He lacked a sufficient mental model to guide his decisions – a schema, in other words. Recognising this showed a high level of self-awareness and humility.

My response was to unpack my thinking about the scenario. Some of this was an instinctive reaction (the knowledge we hold is sometimes tacit and difficult to articulate). However, I could point to some precedents, some procedural things to be aware of, and what my priorities would be if I were the one making the decisions.

Once this calibration process was over, my colleague went away with greater confidence.

Randal Cremer_two teachers talking in library 3

What are mental models?

Solving problems is at the heart of what school leaders do. These problems may be immediate and specific (e.g. how do I respond to this upset parent?) or long-term and complex (e.g. how should we go about improving standards of teaching?). We will all set about solving these problems in different ways. This is partly due to who we are, and partly due to what we know.

Depending on your philosophical position, it is arguable that who you are is entirely a function of what you know. However, setting aside philosophical debates, let us take a functional view and consider what mental framework might exist in the mind of a decision maker which will be the reference point for problem solving.

When confronted with a problem, it is helpful if we have experienced similar situations. Our minds will learn from these experiences and build abstract mental models (or schemata) to guide future decision making. These ‘problem states’ exist in the mind as reference points, and are the basis of leadership expertise.

Experts may have thousands of such models to draw upon, which ensures there is a familiar reference point for most scenarios a leader may face. When confronted by an upset parent, a conscious analysis of the situation is not required; the leader has faced countless upset parents and has a handrail to guide them instinctively as to how to calm the parent and reach a resolution.

Inevitably, not all problems will be familiar or similar to those faced before. When we find ourselves in new leadership territory, there are other mental faculties we can draw upon. We have a values framework against which various actions can be evaluated and prioritised. We will also have knowledge of the social and cultural context of the organisation within which we work: the norms of behaviour, expectations, power relations, personalities and social dynamics.

"When confronted with a problem, it is helpful if we have experienced similar situations. Our minds will learn from these experiences and build abstract mental models (or schemata) to guide future decision making. These ‘problem states’ exist in the mind as reference points, and are the basis of leadership expertise"

How do mental models help decision making?

In deciding what to do, we draw upon the vast schema of knowledge we hold in mind to weigh up the problem, model possible actions we might take, and estimate the likely consequences of each. This process might be deliberate and methodical, particularly for the novice who lacks the repertoire of problems states which underpin expert intuition. Equally, if the problem is complex and novel, a conscious analysis may be required, even for the expert. However, these decisions may also be instinctive – indeed will need to be where there is an urgency of response.

Being aware of the mental models which underpin our analysis of problems, and whether our reference points are sufficiently robust for us to have confidence in our decisions, is important. We need to develop an awareness of the gaps in our knowledge and expertise, knowing when to act independently or ‘borrow’ someone else’s insight and experience – their schema.

In Part 2, I will explore how the decision making process can go wrong if we do not take the time to calibrate our thinking about the complex problems of school leadership.


Matthew Evans is the headteacher of a secondary school in Gloucestershire. He is the author of Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism in Schools, and blogs at educontrarianblog.com on a variety of educational topics. Follow him on Twitter @head_teach


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