A “mental model” is a perspective on a topic of how something works, how something happens, how things go together, as well as a relationship among all factors. With a “shared mental model”, a group of people share a common perspective on a specific topic and how all factors assemble to accomplish a task - sometimes a very big task!
In instructional design, in facilitation efforts, and in problem-solving and decision-making, achieving the development of a shared mental model with a relevant group of people can be powerful. This is especially true because various people sharing the mental model will each remember the information and skill from their unique perspective. Bringing together their shared and their unique perspectives enables the group to carry a far more robust understanding of all things related to a project.
This makes everyone on the team more effective.
We really like cognitive flexibility theory for this very reason. This theory suggests that people will learn far more deeply if they are required to take a mental model and apply it from the vantage point of different roles.
Take, for example, an experience where a group of medical individuals – a doctor from one field, a nurse, a doctor from another field, etc. – all working in a surgical unit where everyone has to understand the procedure and make relevant decisions. Say you want all of them to carry a robust understanding of a specific surgical procedure forward. In a training simulation, you can give participants relevant information in addition to their mental models, so that they can step into a variety of roles to make good decisions. Inhabiting each role, they can apply their understanding in a very different way, increasing the number of brain connections associated with the mental model.
All this leads to more automatic thinking of vast quantities of information related to a large task.
Leveraging the power of the group in problem-solving and decision-making, as well as application in the classroom, takes the total burden off of one person’s shoulders and levels out that burden among all individuals in the group.
In training, in group facilitation, and in situations where decision-making precision is required, the power of shared mental models resides in ensuring that no stone will be left unturned during the process.