Decision Quality for Students and Schools


Re-posted from my EdWeek Teacher blog, Capturing the Spark (12/9/15).


d3c97e_74476856d6296d7b7a8607155b7584a2Several years ago, I spent one week of my summer in a lecture hall at Stanford, taking a course in decision-making. Created by the Decision Education Foundation (DEF), the course provided aimed to provide educators with instruction and tools to help us understand, and teach our students, how major, complex decisions should be made. Our instructors came from backgrounds in business administration and management consulting, with affiliations at major corporations and top business schools. My fellow students included teachers, administrators, and leaders in other educational organizations. It was an eye-opening learning experience that significantly changed my understanding of decision quality and analysis. Over the years, I’ve incorporated some of that learning into my own decisions, and my teaching, giving students an introduction to a particular lens and an analytical approach that works not only with some fiction and non-fiction analysis, but also has real-life applications.

There are a few fundamental concepts in decision quality that I find particularly helpful, whether for personal, instructional, or professional purposes. The first of these concepts is that decision quality is not outcome dependent. To paraphrase the DEF curriculum, a good decision makes sense and feels right–at the time it’s made. The reason the outcome shouldn’t affect our analysis is that we are then introducing elements beyond our control or knowledge, which may undermine the work that we can do at the time we’re reaching a decision. Think about it this way: you can forego any thoughtful decision making and through sheer good luck, end up with a desirable outcome. You might win big at a roulette table with one lucky bet, but if your goal is retain or earn money, playing roulette is never a good decision. Likewise, you can gather ample information, carefully consider everything relating to a decision, and still have a an undesirable outcome due to factor unforeseen or beyond control. You might choose the safest vehicle, drive the safest route, obey all the laws and rules of the road, and still end up in a traffic accident, but that doesn’t mean your earlier decisions were poor. With some life decisions, it’s impossible to identify an end point with a final, known outcome. A divorce after decades of marriage doesn’t necessarily show that the decision to marry was flawed. Many of the decisions we make lead to so many other changes that it’s impossible to know the alternate reality that would tell us we made the best decision. For all of those reasons, we must understand and analyze our decisions with confidence before they’re finalized.

Digging a little deeper, a decision that makes sense is one that address six essential qualities of a good decision. DEF presents these qualities in the image of a chain (above), symbolically suggesting that a single weak link can prevent a good decision. The six essentials of decision quality are:

  • “helpful frame” – we must know exactly what is being decided, and what isn’t.
  • “useful information” – do we have all the facts? What else can we find out?
  • “creative alternatives” – have we considered all of the viable options to meet our goals?
  • “clear values” – what matters most? Will our decision reflect and support our values?
  • “sound reasoning” – we must look carefully for flaws in our logic, or unchallenged assumptions.
  • “commitment to follow through” – are we prepared to act on this decision? If not, we’ll undermine ourselves. Lack of commitment may be a sign we’ve neglected something in the process.

In my sophomore English class, students are currently studying Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. His personal account of a tragic Mt. Everest expedition in 1996 presents ample opportunity to discuss large and small decisions. With the added perspective of hindsight, Krakauer said this year that, “Climbing Mount Everest was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life. I wish I’d never gone.” Within the text itself, we have the opportunity to analyze the decisions made by climbers and guides all along the way. It’s a fascinating exercise because we have to discipline ourselves to analyze the decisions without factoring in the outcome. We also have to frame the decision clearly: no one on Everest decided to end up in grave peril, and in a series of decisions that resulted in catastrophe, there may have been moments where people actually made good decisions with the given information and circumstances. As I also remind students, the fact that I wouldn’t accept the risks of climbing Everest doesn’t mean that people who do accept the risks are making a lower quality decision. The “clear values” in a decision speak to each person’s risk tolerance, and the personal benefit they anticipate from facing those risks. 

The study of decision quality reveals a number of reasons that teachers need both collective and individual autonomy as instructors, and reasons that teachers must be involved in important decisions that shape or become policies affecting students and schools. By “autonomy” I don’t mean complete freedom to impulsively do whatever we want; good decisions rely on clear values and solid information, and I would include insitutional cohesion and coherence, and adherence to professional standards among the values deserving our consideration. However, educational decisions that don’t involve teachers are likely to create weak links in the decision quality chain. Since teachers manage instruction and implement so many other policies in schools, other stakeholders really can’t “commit to follow through” if they lack contact with students; at best, they can commit to follow through with teachers as the conduit. If an administrator or policy maker intends to commit other people to certain actions, it’s essential that their information, reasoning, and values are informed by and aligned with those people they rely on for successful implementation. Though the outcomes might be satisfactory sometimes, it’s never a quality decision to announce to supposedly trusted professionals what actions you have commited them to without their informed consent and partnership.

In my next blog post, I’ll take a look at specific policy decisions that have had a significant impact on students and teachers, to see what we can learn about decision quality in education.

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