Don’t get tied in knots: plan how to make decisions

It’s easy to rush headlong into launching a bold new strategy, but even easier to regret a rash call later on. So try slowing your thinking down instead of always relying on instinct, writes Megan Dixon
9th November 2018, 12:00am
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Megan Dixon

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Don’t get tied in knots: plan how to make decisions

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/dont-get-tied-knots-plan-how-make-decisions

This term, I have spent a lot of time thinking hard about decision-making and how we can use research evidence to support the teaching, learning and leadership decisions we make.

Nobel prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman divides the decisions we make into two types of thinking: System 1 decisions, he suggests, are quick, instinctive and rely on our past experiences - they are typically unconscious; in contrast, System 2 thinking is hard, slow, logical and calculating - it involves effort and is challenging.

We need to use both. We couldn't get through a day's teaching without building up a repertoire of instinctive responses to the hundreds of challenges that are thrown at us - System 1 thinking helps us with the myriad of choices that we must make smoothly, enabling us to move through the day.

But it is easy to get stuck in this mode of thinking, without stopping to carefully consider the possible limitations and outcomes of our decisions. And so, this term, I have found myself making decisions about how I am going to make decisions.

The Education Endowment Foundation's report Putting Evidence to Work: a school's guide to implementation (bit.ly/EEFimplement) has really helped. It emphasises that the research evidence points us in directions that could be effective, but this is only one part of the picture. Choosing the right evidence isn't enough. We need to slow our thinking down and take thoughtful, conscious, logical steps that include our professional judgement, too.

The guide's four-step process - explore, prepare, deliver and sustain - prompts me to slow down and provides a framework for my thinking. It forces me to remember that what is really effective in one class may not be effective in another, and we have to include all the options on the table, and be logical and thoughtful as we consider them.

Here's an example: I recently talked to a colleague who was worried about children's attainment in spelling at their school. They had decided to adopt an idea that had been used by several local schools and hold a spelling bee. They felt this would raise the profile of spelling, get the children and parents talking about it, focus the teachers' attention and create a fun buzz.

This approach had been highly successful for other local schools and it seemed like an obvious decision to go for it. But as we started to think about the idea more slowly, the decision became more nuanced.

Who would the spelling bee benefit? The children who were happy to learn lots of spellings and those who could learn them at home. They would be most likely to win, and would be comfortable reciting the spellings aloud in front of others.

Who wouldn't the spelling bee benefit? Children who find learning at home difficult. For pupils who already believed they were poor spellers, it could be seen as another opportunity to highlight this, publicly. Those who weren't motivated by writing and spelling would not benefit - maybe they wouldn't learn anything from the contest.

As we considered this, it seemed that using a spelling bee as a strategy for raising the ability of lower-attaining pupils might not work - in fact, it might just widen the gap we were trying to close.

It can be so easy to get caught up in the moment of excitement, rush in and start something new, only to regret it further down the line. Although it is hard, slowing down our thinking and forcing ourselves to consider not only the benefits but also the costs and limitations of our decisions might help us to do slightly less, more effectively.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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