Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Hole in Education - Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fabulous account of the life’s work of one of the 20th Century’s greatest thinkers, and it ought to be read by everyone with an interest in making decisions.

Kahneman’s central premise – that humans have two separate mechanisms for making decisions, the instinctive (which he calls ‘System 1’) and the rational (‘System 2’) – is persuasive, as is his contention that bad decisions are made when one mechanism overrides the other, without our realizing it. His forensic analysis of how and why humans substitute a question they do know the answer to when faced with one they don’t is immensely revealing. As a textbook on decision-making, it is an astonishing work. Kahneman even reveals that he wrote a school curriculum, in Israel, on decision making. I would love to see what’s in that.

Our educational system allows us to teach young people to gather information – in the different forms in which it comes. We teach children to order and master that information. Older children learn diverse methods of analyzing information – and we teach them to evaluate it, too. But how much of our curriculum is devoted to teaching children to make decisions? How does schooling actually help young people to make decisions?

In its most pernicious form, the curriculum teaches young people that they have to guess what answer the teacher/examiner has selected as the correct one, and they have to express it in terms which have been decided on as the best terms in which to express it. But these answers are chosen often (as, of course, are the questions) because they are convenient: they allow marks to be given with the highest degree of objectivity, and therefore the lowest risk of (legal) liability.

We teach pupils to communicate in words, numbers, pictures, musically, and dramatically, and to engage in debate or dialogue. We teach them to take part in teams, the value of a discipline of improvement or exploration, to think or contemplate. But decision-making? Is anything more than providing adult role models, giving some scope for trial and error (particularly in the exercise of pupil-leadership) and leading pupils into greater levels of independence helping our young people to become better at such a vital skill.

So, here is the question I am left grappling with, six months after finishing Kahneman’s book. How can I – how can educators – enhance and improve the way that the experience of school teaches young people to make decisions? Are some subjects more likely to teach this than others? What extra-curricular experiences are most likely to enhance this capability?

One obvious answer to this last question is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, and particularly the need during expeditions to modify plans, to consider new information (‘The footpath marked on the map has disappeared!’) and to learn from decisions made under stress.

But what would a course in decision making look like? What sort of students would thrive on it? These further questions will pre-occupy me for a while, and I would be delighted to have contributions as comments below…

In the meanwhile, I shall be writing to Kahneman’s publishers about the Israeli curriculum.

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