The Minefield of Decision Making

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The summer holidays provides one of the few periods in the year when you can deeply reflect on the complexities of the job of being a teacher. After the desperate need for much needed rest is satisfied, there is time to reflect upon the high and lows of the school year disappearing in our rear-view mirror. The many failures can be dissected and, if you are lucky, the successes can be enjoyed. The value of hindsight can be a chastening experience, but luckily we can assign a legion of biases to justify any faulty decisions we made!

Reflecting upon my school year makes me consider the important decisions I have made to guide my teaching and to help lead our English and Media faculty. The year began by citing John Hattie, with the aim of bringing some scientific reasoning to our teaching and learning decision making (the year has ended with a constructive challenge to Hattie’s findings – see here). What followed was a pilot of our iPad project and other developments in our collective practice, such as improving our quality of feedback etc. We also made significant decisions about which KS4 qualifications were best for our students and choices related to other important aspects of teaching and learning.

Each decision is typically assailed by positive and negative viewpoints and evidence. Instinct, emotion, experience and evidence all combine in our best effort at making complex decisions.

When making our decision regarding GCSE, iGCSEs etc. we discussed the matter of making the ‘best worst‘ decision. The fact being that there were so many unknowns linked to assessment in English at KS4 at the moment meant that any decision was difficult. We don’t yet know whether our decision will be proved the right one. Whether it is or it isn’t, we can only be satisfied that we made the best decision with the information at hand. One way to make the best decision we can make is to recognise the many, many flaws which attend the decision making of us all. The flaws in our reasoning are labelled as ‘cognitive bias‘ in the field of psychology. These biases confirm how rooted emotion is in our decision making. See this on the infographic heading this post for just some some of what is an exhaustive taxonomy of bias:

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Of course, it is human nature to understand the world with ‘binary thinking‘. Thinking in terms of black or white, good or bad. When we were roving cave-people this quick, simple thinking was a useful survival mechanism. Even though we live in a more infinitely complex world, our understanding and decision making is still largely driven by ‘binary thinking‘. The world of educational debate is no different. The problem with such thinking is that it is too often simplistic and oppositional in nature. Problems are seen in black and white, when in education we know that problems or institutional changes have many more than fifty shades of grey (apologies for the gratuitous pun!). There are no absolute formal distinctions when it comes to the methods and principles of teaching and learning – there is only a spectrum with a rich variety of perspectives to draw upon. Our decision-making needs to better compensate for the necessary compromise and competing demands which attend our complex school-based choices.

It is only human to prefer a comforting illusion over an inconvenient truth. Therefore a crucial bias we fall prey to is ‘confirmation bias‘. This bias leads us to seek information that confirms our expectations and to interpret ambiguous information in a way that conforms to our expectations and desired outcome. Perhaps this is the chief bias we should be wary of when making any school based decision.

How do we combat this problem of ‘confirmation bias?

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain

Twain’s advice is simple but crucial. We should reflect on our position and the potential biases that guide our reasoning. When we understand patterns of reasoning errors we recognise that such errors can lead to inconsistencies in our decision making. Inconsistencies and faulty decisions are typically followed by our rationalisation and justification. Such faulty decision making can lose the trust of our colleagues and make the process of any decision making change in a school infinitely more difficult.

“Follow people you disagree with.” Daniel Willingham

Daniel Willingham’s advice is more specifically directed at the social media realm of Twitter, but the sentiment is wide-ranging and relevant to school contexts. Too often we are surrounded by people who share the same biases as ourselves. If we work in a great school for a long period of time it is natural to form a ‘status quo bias‘ whereat we want to maintain our comfortable position; whereas if a teacher works in a bad school, where behaviour is poor for example, they can easily apply a ‘group attribution error‘, making the biased assumption that most schools have a behaviour problem and therefore our school system is broken. As individuals within schools it is only natural to form strong positive bonds with our colleagues, but this can lead to all sorts of ‘in-group bias‘. Not only that, if we are a school leader, people may attribute all kinds of subtle reasons to agree with us (see the ‘Halo effect‘). We must therefore seek out people who will challenge our thinking if we are to make the best decisions we can make with the evidence at hand.

Abraham Lincoln famously composed his ‘team of rivals‘ (see this article here about how to get a ‘team of rivals’ working effectively) which is a recognition that we must have our assumptions tested with rigour. Our decision making should be genuinely open to alternative interpretations from others and we must encourage constructive dissenting opinion, otherwise we will create an echo-chamber within which our biases go unchallenged. Good leadership creates a climate where decisions do not go unchallenged and where debate is valued.

So in the coming year I will question my ‘instincts‘ when I go about making a decision. That is not to say my professional instinct, rooted in experience, is always inherently faulty, but simply that I will approach a decision checked by a healthy dose of critical self-awareness of my biases. It would be easy to paralyse the whole decision making process by stumbling over an endless list of biases; however, good sense would dictate that we solve this problem by creating a climate of healthy debate wherein we are challenged by our colleagues and beyond by people who constructively disagree with us. Our decisions will be better for this crucible of debate. If we learn with this openly reflective style then colleagues will feel more invested in decisions and more likely to subsequently carry them out with success. The mine-field of decision making will have many of our potentially detrimental biases diffused for the better.

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Alex Quigley

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

6 Comments

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  • Reply August 11, 2013

    Jill Berry

    Really interesting stuff, Alex. Not sure I knew much about ‘confirmation bias’/’subjective validation’ until I started my doctoral research. I know a lot more now!

    I’m particularly interested in school leadership (my research is looking at the transition from deputy headship to headship) and I was particularly struck by your observation: “If we are a school leader, people may attribute all kinds of subtle reasons to agree with us (see the ‘Halo effect‘). We must therefore seek out people who will challenge our thinking if we are to make the best decisions we can make with the evidence at hand.” I know from my own experience as well as from my reading and research that the worst thing heads can do is surround themselves with senior leaders who always voice agreement and say what they think the head wants to hear – reassuring though that may seem at times, especially when you’re under pressure. We need those who will (professionally!) challenge us and make us think more deeply.

    Last year I heard Brent Davies speak about ‘leadership creatures’ – an idea which has been around a while, but which I hadn’t come across before. It divides those ‘led’ into four quadrants: owls (wise, engaged, positive), foxes (aware but cunning/cynical), donkeys (unaware, unengaged) and sheep/lambs (engaged but naïve/innocent – and new heads often fall into this category). Have you seen this? (It’s actually from Baddeley and James, 1987: http://mlq.sagepub.com/content/18/1/3.abstract – Political skills for managers). I think the really interesting thing here is the distinction between foxes and owls. Owls are, apparently, what we should aspire to be/what as leaders we want those we lead to become (though I met someone recently who said that in reality owls aren’t actually very intelligent creatures. I think they must just have REALLY good PR!) But I can see that there’s a danger that we might categorise those who agree with us as owls and those who disagree as foxes, so we dismiss/discount the naysayers and just label them negative and cynical. We need to listen to them, of course – they may well have valid points to make, good ideas to contribute, and learning from the foxes can help us to move forward, and to make the school more successful.

    Like all models it’s an oversimplification, of course, but I think it’s helpful and certainly made me think.

    Thanks again for the post.

  • […] by Alex Quigley "…in the coming year I will question my ‘instincts‘ when I go about making a decision. That is not to say my professional instinct, rooted in experience, is always inherently faulty, but simply that I will approach a decision checked by a healthy dose of critical self-awareness of my biases. It would be easy to paralyse the whole decision making process by stumbling over an endless list of biases; however, good sense would dictate that we solve this problem by creating a climate of healthy debate wherein we are challenged by our colleagues and beyond by people who constructively disagree with us. Our decisions will be better for this crucible of debate. If we learn with this openly reflective style then colleagues will feel more invested in decisions and more likely to subsequently carry them out with success. The mine-field of decision making will have many of our potentially detrimental biases diffused for the better."  […]

  • […] environment’ in the classroom. Today, I read an interesting blog post by Alex Quigley – here – about ‘cognitive bias’, about how our decision making is rooted in our […]

  • […] This post catalogues our many cognitive biases that beset our decision making – see here. […]

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