What Is Missing From Schooling?

Mental models, reflective practice, curiosity, and uncertainty are necessary to succeed in our careers and life.

“You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and fail in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” - Charlie Munger

School largely emphasizes the accumulation of facts. The goal is to prepare you for a chosen career but the limitations are significant. We cannot expect schools to fully prepare us for any endeavor as experience is vital for the development of skills. However, without a latticework of mental models, the experiences we gain from the application of the knowledge we possess with by fraught with errors.

Without Mental Models, Knowledge is Useless

What is a mental model? In the most basic sense, a mental model is how we see and interpret the world. As you can imagine, there are many ways to see and interpret daily events. Thus, we require a multitude of mental models if we are to succeed in life.

Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet attribute their success to the possession and application of a variety of mental models. In a talk given to The University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in 1994, Munger described several mental models he routinely uses when determining how to invest. These models include, but are not limited to mathematics, accounting, statistics, psychology, biology, microeconomics. These can be broken down into subcategories of probabilistic thinking, Bayesian updating, reciprocity, leverage, ecosystems, game theory, and incentives. Munger has developed a large breadth of models that allow him to chose the appropriate lens to view a particular situation and develop a well-reasoned solution.

How did he develop a variety of mental models? Not through rote memorization. Yes, he is a voracious reader. As in Buffet. But he then applies the lessons read into life experiences. This is far different from the ‘cram and forget’ method of learning in school.

Even if we approach learning with a wide net and work to foster a latticework of mental models, we need to understand how to appropriately apply them

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” — Charlie Munger

System 1 vs. System 2 Thinking

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Employing a breadth of mental models requires effort at all times. It requires substantial effort to acquire the mental models. But after the education, refinement of the models through experience is needed. This is far easier said than done.

When we use our knowledge in real-world situations or academic settings, we use one of two general systems of thinking. Daniel Kahneman describes them in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

  • “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control”

  • “System 2 allocated attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

System 1 is the reflexive action that we routinely use in daily life while system 2 is our critical thinking. We must use both. The issue is most individuals rely too heavily on system 1 and don’t set aside the time to mobilize system 2. Just because we apply information learned does not mean we apply it correctly. As Munger said:

“It’s not hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost every day of your life.”

The difference between bias and heuristics

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcements from system 2” — Daniel Kahneman

Heuristics are mental shortcuts (“rule of thumb”) and decision-making strategies. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking, commonly resulting from simplifying information processing. The difference is critical.

Heuristics are the “shortcuts” that people use to reduce task complexity in judgment and choice, and biases are the resulting gaps between normative behavior and the heuristically determined behavior. (Kahneman et al., 1982)

We can never fully eliminate biases. The nature of a heuristic is it requires system 1 thinking. This type of thinking is prone to errors and bias results. What we can do, however, is remain vigilant to bias and mobilize system 2 when appropriate.

This is where reflective practice comes into play. When you are driving home from work, reflect on events of the day. What went well? What could have been improved? What biases may you have fallen victim to? This is an uncomfortable exercise.

Our brains crave congruency and biases help the world make sense. It is far easier to fall back on system 1 thinking and let our bias wash over us. It is far more difficult to reflect, recognize and admit fault, and course correct.

Scientific Curiosity

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts” — Richard Feynman

If you study and tackle life the way Charlie Munger and Richard Feynman have, you can find success in nearly any endeavor. While Munger was known for his breadth of mental models, voracious reading, and unwavering patience, Feynman was known for his extreme curiosity and propensity to doubt everything.

Feynman was the champion of the layman and challenged scientists to abolish misinformation. He never settled for having all the answers and lived by the mantra of “why not.” Do we use the same approach in our lives?

Schooling teaches us everything has an answer. To pass a class, we have to correctly answer exams or write a paper well enough to receive a passing grade. We either succeed or we do not. Life is not as simple as pass/fail.

Our inability to live in the gray, our propensity to cling to what we “know”, and our frequent submission to biases lead us to shun doubt and uncertainty. Unfortunately, this is a surefire way to impede progress.

Doubt and uncertainty

“It is our capacity to doubt that will determine the future of civilization.” — Richard Feynman

As stated at the beginning of the article, schools emphasize accumulate facts. What happens when those “facts” are no longer true, or at least no longer best practice in a given field.

As a physical therapist, I have to update my clinical models daily to ensure I am providing my patients with the best care possible. This practice is not exclusive to healthcare.

In any career, progress is made and new processes are developed. Unfortunately, they are not always readily adopted. Our biases, particularly confirmation bias and theory-induced blindness, cause us to resist updating our mental models and the knowledge we use on a daily basis. If we are to succeed in our careers and life, we must embrace doubt and uncertainty.

Doubt and uncertainty force us to constantly question if we are using best practice. They fuels our desire to read, learn, and gather new experiences. They lead to the adoption and development of new mental models.

If we want to make the most of our schooling, we need to have the foundation in place to best apply and update our knowledge. This is done through the development and refinement of mental models, frequent reflection with system 2 thinking, remaining scientifically curious, and embracing doubt and uncertainty.

“It is not by getting rid of or even by reducing uncertainty, but by attending systematically to it and by relating to it in a self-conscious way, that objective knowledge can be obtained.” — Richard Feynman

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