Mind-modelling and classroom interaction

In this post we are going to step back from the literature classroom specifically to explore what a concept from cognitive linguistics – mind-modelling – can offer to our understanding of classroom discourse, both in English and across the school.

Mind-modelling (Stockwell 2009)

Rooted in cognitive research on Theory of Mind (Premack and Woodruff 1978), mind-modelling offers a useful way for us to conceptualise how we think about and understand what’s going on in other people’s heads. Theory of Mind is typically associated in popular discourse with autism, but it’s actually got a much broader focus. In essence, having a ‘Theory of Mind’ can be understood as the awareness most humans intuitively – often unconsciously – have that other people have minds of their own, think things, and act and speak as a result of their thought processes. Theory of Mind also includes our knowledge that other people can’t see inside our heads, and that their level of knowledge about a topic or their thoughts might be different from our own. This is where autism comes in, because some people on the autistic spectrum do not have an intuitive awareness of this, and very small children do not have this awareness at all. We can see presence or absence of Theory of Mind being identified empirically through the ‘False Belief Test’, find out more here: https://goo.gl/H5xsHU.

Mind-modelling, a term coined by Peter Stockwell in his 2009 book Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading, goes further by applying these ideas to explain how we mentally construct (or ‘model’) our sense of what’s going on in the mind of a character, an animal or another person. Simply put, we have direct access to our own mind and thoughts: everything else is essentially guesswork. In other words, whenever we interact with other entities, real or fictional, human or animal, we ‘mind model’ what we think is going on in their head, and it can be all too easy to forget that this model may be inaccurate. When we do this whilst reading a novel we often do get a window into the character’s mind through various types of ‘thought representation’ (For a good summary of this see here: https://goo.gl/ZJsnWT). In our day to day interactions, however, we’re left to construct our mind models from the other cues we have available, which might include in the immediate context:

  • what a person says, their tone and manner;
  • a person’s actions;
  • facial expressions and body language.

However, we will also draw on the schematic knowledge we bring with us to the interaction. This could include:

  • our knowledge of the person and our previous interactions with them;
  • our more generic knowledge schemas regarding characteristics such as gender, race, age, clothing, job or role (if known or apparent);
  • our knowledge of the context in which the interaction occurs, which could be generic (a classroom) or specific (my classroom).

So in any interaction you have with another person, both of you interpret (mind-model) what you think is going on in the other person’s head based on what you know or assume (consciously or subconsciously) about that person, what they’re saying, and how you interpret their actions.

This is a really useful way of thinking about interactions between teachers and students in the classroom. In the next few posts we’re going to explore mind-modelling and education in more detail, focusing on these three areas in particular:

  • questions and answers;
  • marking and feedback; and,
  • conceptualising the classroom as a discourse space.

Premack, D. and Woodruff, G. (1978) ‘Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(4): 515-526.

Stockwell, P. (2009) Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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