some teachers, think about learning. This work rests on the proposition that teaching is an inherently human practice, that people all continuously are teaching one another, and in so doing they develop working (although often tacit) notions of pedagogy. Much like the folk science of children and adults, folk pedagogy is evident across age spans and diverse populations and represents a shared, working notion of learning. Individuals may not be aware of their own folk pedagogy, and it may even be incommensurate with their own espoused views of teaching and learning, constraining the range of pedagogical moves they will make.
An important component of folk pedagogy is a mental model of the learner (Strauss, 1997). In a series of studies, Strauss and colleagues have examined teachers’ “explicit espoused” and “enacted” mental models of learning to try to describe what they believe students do when they learn. For example, in one study of espoused mental models, Strauss administered semi-structured interviews to science and humanities teachers, who explained their strategies for teaching material that is difficult for students. They found a common mental model of learners across teachers. Irrespective of subject matter area (e.g., science, language arts) and level of subject matter knowledge, teachers conceived of learners as consuming small portions of information in relative isolation and trying to link this to their extant prior knowledge. Strauss encapsulates the mental model metaphorically: “the entrance to the children’s minds has ‘flaps’ that are open when children are attentive. If children are uninterested or unmotivated, the flaps go down and the material cannot enter the mind” (Strauss, 1997, p. 380). Given this view of learners, teachers saw instruction as an “engineering problem” in which their task was twofold. First, the teacher needs to get information into the mind of the child. Second, once the information is there, the challenge is how to move it to a place where it will be “stored.”
Teachers’ beliefs about student mental models, as described in this research, contrast with research on student learning that we have described in this report. The mental model Straus and colleagues describe calls for teachers to break the subject matter into “chunks” that can be mastered sequentially and made more enticing by manipulating an affective response. In contrast, we have argued that learning science includes participating in scientific practice in which learners engage in meaningful problems over time. In the practice view of student learning, these chunks are framed, from the outset, as important pieces of a whole that, when understood and organized, provide learners with leverage to explain, manipulate, or further explore the natural world. It is this leverage—the promise of new, meaningful ways to act—that entices students to work hard at complex scientific problems. Although there is no empirical research that examines how the teachers’ mental model of students influences student learning, we draw attention