The confusion between whether something is used to teach or to guide underlies much of the dissatisfaction with the use of models to inform the way we work, learn, and behave.
Let’s talk about systems and models — but stick with me, this is a practical and not just academic matter.
I’ll start with a quick explanation.
A system is a pattern of relationships (e.g., connections, activities, and functions) operating within a boundary (e.g., time, space, circumstances and situations). Systems can be straightforward and simple through to elaborate and complex and the boundaries can be physical, social, or temporal or some combination.
A model is a representation of a system. It is a means of articulating relationships, functions, boundaries, and actors. Models are most often visual in nature as it allows us to see (literally and figuratively) the details of the system. However, oral and written storytelling can be used as well or as a complement to a visual representation.
A teaching model provides an articulation and understanding of relationships within a system. An action model provides guidance on how to proceed within a system – it informs how we can intervene. In other words, a teaching model tells you what’s going on and orients you to the dynamics within a situation while an action model helps you do something about it.
These aren’t the same things. Yet, often people confuse one for the other. Most common is mistaking a teaching model for an action model. This is captured in the Buddhist saying: Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.
Qualities of Models
Theories, models, and frameworks can be enormously useful, but that means we need people to show their utility. I can’t simply say something is useful and that’s it: use is contextual. A model needs to be fit for purpose.
Teaching models can help us to identify what is involved in a particular situation. They don’t provide instructions on what to do, when, and how.
Consider Frameworks (which are a type of model), for example, that are useful if they meet four criteria:
- Coherence: Produces coherence in data, values, processes, and meaning
- Evaluative: Encourages and generates criteria that can be evaluated
- Utility: The framework is clear, useful, and can be practically applied to generate value easily.
- Responsive: The framework allows for dynamic, flexible accommodation to circumstances and situations without losing its integrity.
A Framework is a model that, at its best, serves both teaching and action roles. A good framework helps you to think about something and some guidance on how to take that thinking and apply it toward some problem or situation.
Where we run into problems is when we create models that have expectations for guidance, yet only provide description (teaching, no action). Or worse, when we provide description, yet offer little ways to help people make sense of how things fit together (poor teaching).
Teaching, Learning, Acting and Praxis
I developed the Design Helix as both a teaching and action model. That was done with intent, but it was also done with the idea that it is to be used as a guide and support, not a rule. The strengths of the model are that it has a blend of details and it speaks to a dynamic nature of design. It also describes the steps involved in the process of design along two parallel, interweaving tracks of thought (imagination), and action (production). It’s designed for people who are unaccustomed with the way things are designed.
In that way, it’s about teaching. But because we learn through action, it’s also set up to help people think through their work as they do it – like a compass of sorts.
The Design Helix has linear layout meant to convey steps and progress through a process which comes at the expense of articulating the non-linear aspects of design in practice. That has been augmented by the addition of the twisted, circular helix diagram explaining how the model would manifest in practice cycles. The Design Helix is used in teaching professionals and students about fundamental qualities within design thinking and how they are organized in practice.
While I am pleased with the Design Helix, I always preface this with the caveat to learners: this needs to fit your experience and practice. If you find that the model works to aid thinking and action, use it. If not, modify it in your practice or use something else. It’s not a description of capital t “Truth”. It is a useful model for teaching and practice, but no model is universal. George Box’s comments on statistical models are useful here:
All models are wrong, but some are useful.George Box, Statistician
This is the issue that many models face. I’ve worked with students, clients, and partners who get caught up on a model’s components in their practice. When things don’t work as expected in the model, they find themselves stuck. This is a trap common in the use of teaching or action models: the sometimes misalignment to problem contexts. Does this render the model useless? No. It also doesn’t mean that everything will have a tight-fitting model to explain what’s happening or guide actions.
The map is not the territory.
Praxis is the fusing of experience and knowledge together and great practice understands where the map works, what the territory tells us, and how to put them together. Listen to what a good model or framework tells you, follow where it leads, but also be willing to step off the path when necessary and chart your own if the situation demands.
This is good practice, not the absence of it.