The Importance of Mental Models

Map FinalImproving school culture really is a journey. A never ending one. And when setting out on any journey to a place we’ve never been before, the first thing we need is a good map. A good map is not just nice to have. It is essential. That’s exactly what a Mental Model is: a good map. Without a good map you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know what the destination looks like, you won’t know when you arrive… and you can easily get lost!

Just why are Mental Models so important? Because, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, very few of us are able to see the world as it actually is. Artists, mystics, poets, do catch glimpses. The rest of us see only shadows… and what our Mental Model of reality allows us to see. In other words, our Mental Models are an internal symbol or representation of our external reality. Like a map. Having the right mental model is like having a map to the cave.

The teachers and principals who most effectively increase the Rigor and Relevance in their schools have learned that the first, and most important, thing they need before beginning their journey is a new Mental Model of what a “good” teacher is. That new model should include a flexible framework to guide their journey, a framework they can use as a map to make decisions while moving forward. That is exactly what ICLE’s Rigor and Relevance Framework® provides.

What teachers and principals often need most is not more initiatives, programs, or tools… but better Mental Models to help them think more strategically about using the tools they already have. Dr. Richard Jones, describes it this way… “A mental model is an internal symbol or representation of external reality. The right mental model is like having a map to a city. Professional development in mental models introduces a framework, gives concrete examples, and encourages patterns of reflective thought and conversations to act consistently in these mental models.”

Creating real change in schools is a fluid process. Just like every student, every school has its own unique DNA. There is no single detailed blueprint to follow for success. However, there most certainly are lessons that can be learned from other schools. Dr. Bill Daggett has worked with schools and districts across the country for over 25 years to share best practices, conduct research, and support school leaders in facilitating changes that lead to measurable improvement… He says with some certainty that, “…changing Mental Models is one of the most important first steps”.

My new book, The Chemistry of Culture introduces The Culture Framework® provides a “Mental Model” that can be used to understand the development of a highly effective culture. This new framework can be used by school leaders as a map to guide reflection on the dynamic process of creating the 3 things needed for building a culture of learning and innovation: Trust, empowerment, and collaboration.

The Chemistry of Culture can be purchased now on Map Finalat: , or you can get a 20% discount direct from the publisher, Rowman and Littlefield at: using promo code RLEGEN19

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Praise for The Chemistry of Culture

My sincere thanks to all those at the 2019 Model Schools Conference who attended my “Chemistry of Culture” session or Farrington HS’s “Transforming Learning Through Culture” this week. To order the book and learn more, you can receive a 20% #MSC2019 discount using the form below. Remember all royalties and profits go to a special Farrington HS Student Fund. Mahalo!

Warford_The Chemistry of Culture JPG


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The Chemistry of Culture Book Release

Book Cover

I’m proud to announce the publication of my new book, The Chemistry of Culture: Brain-Based Strategies to Build a Culture of Learning.  Pre-order discounts and information are available now on Amazon at:  The book will be released September 15th on all major outlets. Why is a book on culture so important to your classroom and school? Because if your culture is broken, you can’t fix anything else.

Your classroom and school culture is the foundation of your success. But too often it’s the biggest barrier blocking improvement. If your school’s culture is broken, you can’t change technology or teaching. Any effective school or classroom culture is built on 3 things: trust, empowerment, and collaboration. This book explores the brain research emerging from the field of Neuroscience that supports why and how each of these 3 elements is so critically important.

This book brings that brain research out of the lab and into schools and classrooms. Readers will learn not only why culture is too important to be left to chance, but how a positive culture can be built by design. You will learn how to use successful startegies from highly effective classrooms and schools. You will learn how to use these strategies to “bathe brains” in the neurochemicals needed to improve the culture, and learning, in any classroom or school.

Watch this space for updates and more information about contents.


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Emphasize Empathy

Empathy in students entering college has declined a jaw-dropping 40% Since 2000! Think about that a minute… This finding from a study of empathy in over 14,000 college students, by University of Michigan researchers, caused quite a stir when it was presented to the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science and reported in Psychology today. The study showed that students starting college after 2000, have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them.

And it’s happening at every level. New research into Bullying from the University of Kansas showed that measures of cognitive empathy in students transitioning to middle school also show evidence of significant decline. Cognitive empathy is defined as the ability to take another person’s perspective. Remarkably, empathy declined whether the students had displayed bullying behaviors or had been the victims of it.

Even a quick review of the literature will turn up multiple studies that show the decline of empathy across different demographic groups. In our culture as a whole, empathy has declined 48% in the 30 years between 1979 and 2009.

Empathy Data

These are not isolated studies. Not only is Empathy dramatically declining in our culture, but the rate of the decline is actually accelerating in young people. But don’t take my word. Google empathy for yourself. You’ll also learn that there are things we can do about it.

Research into declining empathy done by psychologist, Jean Twenge, has led her to conclude that we are experiencing what she has called a, “Narcissism Epidemic”. Her research found increasing numbers of students exhibiting personality traits leading to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, an extreme condition that arises when people are so self-absorbed that other people are seen only as objects to reflect their glory.

Want to test your empathy level against today’s college students? You can do so by taking the Empathy Survey at this link:

I increasingly find that the teachers and school leaders with whom I work instantly recognize the reality of this trend. They see it first-hand every day. One of the easiest ways for me to get a group of heads nodding affirmatively is to say… today’s young people are “wired differently”. So, dear reader, I want to ask you a few essential questions:

  1. What happens to a culture when Empathy declines?
  2. What changes in a culture as we lose our ability to empathize with each other?
  3. What will this decline mean for our schools, our teachers, and students?

I will be exploring answers to these questions and offering brain-based strategies for building empathy in future Blog Posts on this site and in a new book, “Closing the Circle of A’o”.


*Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis by Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, Courtney Hsing, Personality and Social Psychology Review, August, 2010

*Empathy Dropped 40% in College Students Since 2000, Maia Szalavitz, Psychology Today, May 2010

*The Decline in Cognitive Empathy Among Middle School Students, Aaron Bolton, Shandra Forrest-Bank, Kimberly Bender, Jeff Jenson, University of Kansas, October, 2016


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The Chemistry of Culture White Paper

My new White Paper, The Chemistry of Culture, was released at the 2018 Model Schools Conference in Orlando, FL. It is available at the link below:

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If Your Culture is Broken, You Can’t Fix Anything else

The most important question a student will ask a teacher is, “Why do I need to know this?” The most important question a teacher can ask a principal is, “Why do I need to do this?” If we don’t have compelling, informed, and relevant answers for those questions, we’re in trouble before we start. Our answers inevitably reflect how we understand and articulate the culture of our school.  And why does culture matter? Because if your culture is broken, you can’t fix anything else. This is probably the single most important thing I’ve come to understand over the last twenty years of my work in education.

As the Florida K12 Chancellor of Public Schools, district superintendent, and Executive Director of Florida Association of School Administrators from 2000-2011, the easiest thing for me to find was a failed implementation of some new program, curriculum, strategy, technology, or school improvement model. By failed implementation, I mean that after two or three years, the program or strategy either had either not taken root or not survived at all.

Failed or poorly executed implementations were literally everywhere I looked. For example, before visiting a school with a large ELL population, I’d be told all teachers had been trained in GLAD Instructional Strategies, and yet in the course of my visit, I could often find little evidence of them being used in classrooms. Over the years I’ve also found that in any meeting I’m in, about the easiest way to get agreement around the table is for someone to say: “It’s all about the implementation.” Without exception, people will nod in agreement. I’ve heard it over and over. Meanwhile, schools and districts continue to lurch from one new idea to the next. I’ve come to the conclusion that the “implementation” cliché is like the old weather cliché: Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.

One exception to this trend is Farrington High School, in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii — one school that is definitely doing something about it. Or, as they say at Farrington… “making shift happen!” Farrington is a two-time ICLE Model School because there is something special about the highly effective culture school leaders, teachers, and students are building there. It’s a culture built on a foundation of positive Relationships, sharing a vision of Rigorous and Relevant learning for all. Through their shared vision, school leaders, teachers, and students are creating a highly effective culture of learning, a positive culture built on three things: Trust, Empowerment, and Collaboration.

At the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference in Orlando, FL, Farrington teachers and Principal, Al Carganilla, will again share specific strategies he and his team have used to earn teachers’ trust, and empower them to collaborate on ways to literally re-invent their classrooms. At Farrington High School, everyone is teaching and learning! Teachers are learning from teachers, students are learning from students and teachers, and teachers regularly collaborate to create inter-disciplinary, real-world Quad D Lessons. For almost four years now, it’s been my great privilege to join them on their journey from struggling to successful by serving as their ICLE Coach.

But, how did they start? How did they successfully begin to move their culture from one of compliance to innovation? It began with two key steps. First, Principal Carganilla needed to earn his teacher’s trust. He began by creating a new Mantra: “You are pre-forgiven.” What does that mean? It means that you’re implicitly giving people the benefit of the doubt and treated with respect. Have an idea you think will better serve students? “You are free to try it and supported in doing so” is the message to teachers at Farrington. Want to try a new program, technology platform, or instructional strategy? Want to collaborate with colleagues to decide, design, and deliver your own professional development? Go for it! Wait, what? Teachers in charge of their own Professional Development?!

Yes. At Farrington High School, that was step two. The Teacher Leadership Cadre, or TLC, is empowered to design and deliver their own PD to every teacher, every week. In their Model Schools session this summer, these Farrington teacher leaders will show you step-by-step exactly how they do it. In my Model Schools session, “The Chemistry of Culture,” I will show how exciting new discoveries in the field of Neuroscience support each of the strategies Farrington is using. If you can attend both, you’ll get a great understanding in both the brass tacks of school culture improvement as well the reasons why and how it positively affects human beings.

The bottom line is, when it comes to culture, we know what to do and we know how to do it. We know how to make classrooms more engaging and effective for all our students. And we’ve been talking about the need for 21st Century instruction for, let’s see, eighteen years now! I mean we’ll soon be a quarter of the way into the 21st Century. Think of your own school. Do your classrooms look like they’re ready for this century? Most importantly, are they classrooms where you would be genuinely excited to send your children? I mean, your own children? If your answer is any version of, not so much, why? The short answer is: If your culture is broken, you can’t fix anything else.

Whether your school’s culture is broken, or just not where you want it to be, my Featured Session at this year’s 26th Annual Model School Conference in Orlando, Florida will explore exciting new findings in the field of Neuroscience that not only support the work Farrington is doing, but also what brain scientists are uncovering the “Chemistry of Culture.” My session will provide both school leaders and teachers with specific brain-based strategies that you can use to build a more highly effective and positive school or classroom culture. I hope you will join us. In the meantime, I’ll be posting more in this space.

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Culture is Destiny

I started writing this Blog because I’ve been thinking about and studying how best to use technology in the classroom for over 30 years, and I thought I could contribute to the topic. After all, I was “flipping” my classroom (using analog technology) 25 years ago. As Senior Advisor to the International Center for Leadership in Education I’ve been speaking and leading workshops on technology-based intervention programs, Flipped Classes and Blended Learning for over 10 years.

The focus of this Blog was to help educators at every level more effectively implement technology in the classroom. I’m grateful to have been very busy, working with schools and districts all across the country, even Asia, and Europe. The two essential questions driving my work were: What are the biggest barriers to effective use of technology, and how do we overcome them?

This may sound simple, even obvious, but I’ve learned the answer to both questions is: School Culture. As I studied the differences between districts and schools, I saw clearly that in schools that struggled, the biggest barriers were most often not budget, instructional, or technical. What was holding them back was a negative, sometimes even toxic, school culture. As I coached teachers and principals, and we peeled back the layers of their problems digging for root causes, they said over and over that… their school culture was broken.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the teaching. The best technology won’t fix poor instruction… and it won’t fix a broken culture. At the International Center, we believe in three things: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. But that’s not the proper order. It’s Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor. Building an effective school culture is all about the relationships!

Today there are many writers and resources for using technology in the classroom. But while we’re so focused on making sure everyone is wired; we must also make sure that everyone is connected. The strength of the connection determines your culture. And that will now be the focus of this Blog.

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