Mind-modelling and Questions in the Classroom

In the previous post we introduced the concept of ‘mind-modelling’ (Stockwell 2009): the process by which we consciously and unconsciously construct what we think other people, characters or animals are thinking. If you like, you can read that post in full here. The most important point is that mind-modelling highlights that we only actually have direct access to our own minds and thoughts, everything else is guesswork. In this post we’re going to consider in more detail how this concept might be useful to help us think about questions and answers in classroom interaction.

When we mind-model other people we essentially draw on two main sources of information:

  1. Our prior knowledge of that person, which we mentally bring with us to the current interaction; and
  2. Cues we draw from the immediate interaction itself (discourse, tone, body language, verbal and non-verbal feedback, and so on).

If we don’t know the other person well, or even at all, then our prior knowledge is likely to be more heavily reliant on our generic knowledge schemas relating to characteristics we perceive that person to possess (age, gender, race, profession and so on), as well as those cues from the exchange itself. So, for instance, if we snap at a stranger they are more likely to mind-model that we are an angry or rude person, whereas a friend who knows this is unusual behaviour might mind-model that we are upset or having a bad day. These mind-models have consequences for how interactions unfold: the stranger might snap back, our friend might ask what’s wrong. It’s reasonable to suggest that the better we know a person the more chance we have of constructing a mind-model for them that accurately reflects their actual mind, but it’s also important to remember that these models are assembled from our best guesses, and might still be wrong.

This is one reason why exchanges on Twitter can become rife with miscommunications, misinterpretations and arguments, especially if interactants don’t know each other offline: we have very little to go on when constructing a mind-model for the person we’re talking to, sometimes just 140 characters and perhaps a single profile image. This leaves the door wide open for people to be first interpreting another’s comments, and then second constructing their responses, based on a mind-model which does not accurately reflect the other person’s mind. This also applies to tweet exchanges involving questions and answers; mind-modelling can completely transform how a discourse participant interprets a question, and thus how (or indeed whether) they answer. Consider, for instance, how you feel about being asked a question in these two scenarios:

  1. When you think the person asking is genuinely curious and thinks you may know the answer; compared with,
  2. When you think the person thinks that you don’t know the answer and is trying to catch you out in order to embarrass or undermine you.

Both of these scenarios involve you mind-modelling the person asking the question because you cannot access their actual thoughts in the way we are often given access to the thoughts of fictional characters. In other words, it’s important to bear in mind that even posing simple closed questions in a classroom can carry a huge amount of mind-modelling baggage.

At a superficial level, we can think about questions as a strategy teachers use in order to calibrate their mind-models for individual students. So, for example, if you think that Jim has understood a particular point or has a particular bit of knowledge, then your mind-model for Jim initially includes this: asking Jim a specific question about this topic is really a way of checking your mind-model against Jim’s actual mind. At the same time, it’s also highly salient to think about what might influence whether and how Jim answers your question, beyond whether or not he is actually able to generate a response.

One of us recently discussed this topic in depth with final year undergraduates, both in relation to their school and university experiences. We started by reading Elliot and Ingram’s fantastic (2016) chapter (available here).  Here are some of the insights and reflections that arose from these conversations: it might be interesting for teachers to consider these point in terms of how they might relate to their own practice:


One thing that became clear from the students’ discussions was that that there can be lots of different types of silence in a classroom following a teacher’s question. The students felt that they were often consciously aware of what kind of silence they were experiencing in a given class and suggested:

  • Silence does not always equate to students not knowing the answer, but can be to do with how the students mind-model the teacher’s reason for asking the question in the first place. For example, if I ask ‘has anyone read Catcher in the Rye?’ students might be less likely to say yes if they think that the teacher is asking in order to identify an individual who can then be asked a more specific question about Salinger’s novel (even if this wasn’t the case), because of a concern that they might not know the answer to the unknown question which might follow. A possible consequence of this might be that the teacher then establishes a mind-model for the students which does not include knowledge of the novel when in fact this is not the case.
  • Silence can sometimes be the result of students having *an* answer, but not being confident it’s the *right* answer. Here the *right* answer was understood by the students as the answer that they mind-modelled that the teacher anticipated at the point they constructed the question.
  • Questions that are framed as open but where answers are then treated as though there is one ‘correct’ response (which they interestingly phrased as ‘open questions that are really closed’) were a key cause of a class’ developing reluctance to answer a teacher’s questions over time. In other words, they suggested that students can develop mind-models of particular teachers which result in the students choosing not to articulate what they otherwise felt would be good contributions to a discussion in case the answer didn’t match the answer they modelled the teacher as having in mind.


We also discussed how teachers rephrased questions following students’ responses (or lack thereof) and explored how:

  • Teachers rephrasing questions can be viewed very positively, as a concession on the part of the teacher that the reason for the lack of response might lie with the presentation of the question rather than a lack of the relevant knowledge in the minds of the students.
  • Rephrasing questions can create a stronger sense of negotiation and constructive interaction in the teacher-student relationship because it disrupts the unspoken accusation that the students lack knowledge they should possess.

The status of being wrong or ‘not knowing’

Finally we agreed that the most important factor for productive questioning in the classroom was how students mind-model how the teacher is likely to react to wrong or off-topic answers, or admissions of ‘not knowing’.

Mind-modelling offers a systematic way to think about and describe classroom interactions. As such, we think it could be valuable for teachers to reflect on the way they frame questions through this lens, as well as consider what they base the mind-models they have for their students on, and how reliable or unreliable that information might be.

In the next post we’ll consider how mind-modelling can be usefully applied to practices around marking and feedback.


Elliot, V. and Ingram, J. (2016) ‘Using silence: Discourse analysis and teachers’ knowledge about classroom discussion’, in M. Giovanelli and D. Clayton (eds.) Knowing About Languuage: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom. London: Routledge, pp.151-61.

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

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