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Want great lessons everyday? Ask yourself, “What I.F.S?” [Book summary: The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish]

Want great lessons everyday? Ask yourself, “What I.F.S?” [Book summary: The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish]

Shane Parrish is a genius. After a career in Canadian intelligence and anti-terrorism, he left his career as a spy in 2017 to pursue a full-time career as an author, and his fans include people like Warren Buffet. While he writes and thinks about a lot of complex issues, in his book The Great Mental Models he covers some basic concepts that anybody can use in their daily lives. Three of the concepts are great tools for thinking about how to design classrooms for maximum learning. 


Just ask yourself: What I.F.S?


Great Mental Models Inversion

Inversion is the simple act of asking yourself to consider the opposite of whatever you’re trying to design. 

If you’re trying to design a really engaging lesson opening, ask yourself, “how would a lesson begin terribly?” 

Then list the characteristics:

  1. Lots of teacher talk
  2. No connection to student interests or prior knowledge
  3. 20 minutes of reading a boring text

Once you’ve listed these characteristics, you can invert them (describe the opposite) to begin dreaming up the perfect lesson opening. 

By listing all the things you don’t want to happen, you can plan lessons that will avoid pitfalls rather than trying to achieve perfection.

“Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”

Shane Parrish

The Great Mental Models

People love examples. It might seem ridiculous to “reinvent the wheel” when a good example already exists. 

It’s easy to see why this is appealing: it requires less effort. 

But sometimes, the existing wheel just won’t get you where you’re going. That’s when it’s time to think about First Principles. 

First Principles are the components of a great example. If you’re looking at a wheel (to beat this analogy to death), First Principles might include the hubcap, the tire, the inner-tube, even the air inside the inner-tube. Once you break something down into First Principles, you can evaluate what’s working and what isn’t.

Great Mental Models First Principles

If the lesson you’ve reproduced from your textbook isn’t working, try breaking it down into First Principles.

  • What are the materials?
  • What does the teacher do, step-by-step?
  • What do the students do, step-by-step?

In fact, even when the lesson is working…you should consider these component parts.

By breaking things down into First Principles, you can extract the parts that are working, and improve upon the parts that aren’t. These incremental improvements help you optimize your lessons so they achieve maximum effectiveness, without having to start from scratch. 

As a bonus, once you’ve broken a lesson down into First Principles, you might find parts that can even be applied elsewhere in your work!

Parrish has more to say about First Principles in his work on goal-setting.

Great Mental Models Second Order Thinking

Do you ever worry about what will happen if things don’t go according to plan?

What if they do go according to plan?

Second Order Thinking involves thinking beyond the outcome that you want to achieve. 

When you’re working on a plan, you need to consider more than whether or not your goals will be met. You need to consider how people will react to the outcome.

Use this when planning questions in lessons. 

Think of a variety of ways students might answer the question, and how those answers might lead students to conclusions that might include misconceptions about the material. Students often answer poorly-crafted questions correctly, while not understanding the actual concepts in the lesson. By using Second Order Thinking while coming up with questions, you can avoid misunderstandings that students might develop…even when they get the answer right.

To get better results, you need to think beyond the immediate results of your action and consider its long term consequences. Second‐order thinking is useful in predicting what happens after you get what you want.

The Great Mental Models is a book about thinking deeply. By applying these concepts to your lesson-planning you can invent lessons that will not only achieve greatness in your classroom, but also avoid common pitfalls that teachers face in the classroom. The next time you sit down to plan a lesson, or help a teacher plan, ask yourself one simple question: “What I.F.S?”

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