Mental Model Theory


How assumptions and beliefs give rise to understandings

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … web of propositions (believed to mirror reality)
  • Knowing is … acting according to one’s model
  • Learner is … a knitter of propositions (individual)
  • Learning is … deriving coherence among propositions
  • Teaching is … disrupting (web of) propositions




A mental model is a web of beliefs and/or truths that is assumed by a knower to mirror some aspect of reality. The model thus affords a confidence that the situation at hand is understood, and so the knower experiences it as a coherent and sufficient basis for acting and predicting – even though it might be logically flawed and/or empirically false.


Mental Model Theory shares core assumptions with a range of Non-Trivial Constructivisms. However, with its emphasis on formal and explicit propositions (as opposed to the totality of one’s experiences), Mental Model Theory tends to be much narrower in scope. Perhaps the biggest issue with the theory is the word “model” in its name, which might prompt readers to assume inappropriately that the theory is a version of Representationalism.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Kenneth Craik Jay Wright Forrester

Status as a Theory of Learning

Mental Model Theory is a perspective on learning that is especially useful for making sense of why humans sometimes fail to learn – that is, for offering an explanation of how established understandings can militate against the development of more expansive, robust, and powerful understandings.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Mental Model Theory offers no direct advice to teachers, but it does provide an argument for attentiveness to the systemic (versus cumulative) nature of learners’ understandings. That is, Mental Model Theory invites a teaching that is focused on interrogation of propositions rather than accumulation of facts.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The is a substantial literature around Mental Model Theory, but it is mainly theoretical in nature. In that regard, Mental Model Theory can be construed as robustly theorized but with limited empirical support.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Mental Model Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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