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What We Know About Teacher Decision Making

November 4, 2009

When it comes to making decisions in our lives, we think we’re in control. We think we’re making smart, rational choices. But are we?    — Dan Ariely

I have been thinking about teacher decision making in light of recent research. Evidence suggests that people make decisions more quickly than one might think (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) and that once a decision is made, it is likely to stick, whether it is a good one or a poor one (see Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational). Such findings make me wonder whether it is realistic to aim for stronger teacher decision making.  Are the decisions of teachers unavoidably quick and without supporting evidence? Are we fooling ourselves when we intend to be careful in making instructional decisions?

Upon further reflection, I find myself thinking that folks like Gladwell and Ariely are indeed describing the kinds of decisions we educators often make. Educators face hundreds of situations each day that require a choice, a judgment, or a conclusion, and we do indeed make them quickly; once we have decided, we often seek justifications for the decisions we have made – in other words, we find evidence to support our decision, rather than the other way around.

In addition, though, descriptions like those of Gladwell and Ariely point to the value of coaching, working on professional learning teams, and having reflective conversations with learning-focused principals, because such interactions slow us down. When educators sit side-by-side or gather around a table to consider what they know, how they know it, and the implications of such knowledge for practice, the blink-of-the-eye, less-than-rational decision can be stopped in its tracks.

Conversations with partners, be they coaches, learning team colleagues, or supportive supervisors, make us more present to what is right here, right now: students, learning, relationships, evidence. They are the strongest processes we have for making stronger decisions.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    November 5, 2009 11:48 am

    Do you think that having a learning conversation could help us create new pathways in our brain? Like opening the door to another decision than your brain usually makes?

    • November 5, 2009 2:23 pm

      Amy, I think you may be on to something. We don’t have all the research on the brain that we need, but we do know: 1. The amygdala, which is responsible for strong feelings and thrives on positive connections, slows down the cortex — the thinking part of the brain — if it is not well-connected to people. So coaching conversations can give the amygdala what it needs. 2. Coaching conversations lend themselves well to cognitive connections, because the questions of a savvy colleague can help teachers to make connections. These points make me very optimistic!

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