There is no shortage of educational trends and innovations. At the same time, professional educators know the importance of making decisions on some sort of basis. How do we decide when to implement a trend and when not do implement it? How do we decide whether to add interactive whiteboard to every classroom or how to do it, whether to adopt a 1:1 program, whether to use a particular curriculum or adaptive learning math software?
As we think about the decisions we make in education, I see ten common approaches to many educational choices: fashion-based decisions, personal preferences, reliance on educational traditions, reliance of authorities or expert advice, decisions based on reason, decisions based on faith and convictions, the use of reason, data-driven decision-making, and decisions based on relevant research. Following is a short reflection on each of these approaches, noting that decision are often not just based on one of these, but two or more of them combine to shape our decision-making style.
These are the educational decisions we make because a given strategy, practice, or technology is fashionable. Closely related, we do it because others are doing it. We sometimes even hear educators talk about how a given idea or practice is “so 1990s” or even just “so last year.” It is rooted in the idea that newer is better, The older practice is likely not as good. Sometimes we make fashion-based decisions but there happen to be other good reasons for that same decision…they just didn’t play a role in our choice. One school might put interactive whiteboards in every classroom because it is fashionable or trendy. Another might do it for a completely different reason, like because they attended a workshop and learned about the specific benefits for teaching and learning.
It is not always easy to tell if we are making a fashion-based decision, because we sometimes still use the language of research, reason, or data when defending our choices. As a result, this is a messy process. Nonetheless, it can be helpful to check our motives by challenging ourselves to honestly reflect on what is really influencing the decisions that we make.
Personal Preference and Comfort
Sometimes we make decisions because we want to, because it is the comfortable thing to do. It might be because we are familiar with it, allowing us to avoid the something frightening unknown of some newer educational claim or practice. Again, we may try to justify our decision using the language of reason, data, or research; but when we are fully honest, we recognize that your decisions are based upon what is comfortable for us, even if it may not be the best for the learners or others.
Reliance on Authority Figures, Experts and Other Respected People
Whether it is a college professor, a respected colleague, or a well-known and respected figure in education; we sometimes based our decisions on the viewpoints and advice of these people. As such, we are at the mercy of their skill in suggesting the best options. There are times when we truly don’t know that much, and we don’t have the time or means to do the research ourselves. However, if we are going to be professional educators, that calls for us to take at least some ownership and responsibility for educational choices. This is a tempting option as it requires less time and effort, and because the field of education already tends to value respect for authority figures.
Sometimes we end up making decisions because of indifference. By not caring and not making any strong stand, we find ourselves pushed or pulled toward a given decision. As I recall from a classic Rush song, choosing not to decide is still a choice…and that choice has just as many implications as if one invested more time and effort in making it.
Compliance, Policy, and Regulations
Education is an increasingly regulated sector. As such there are sometimes largely non-negotiable decisions. Is there solid or research to show that 180 days of school is better than 150 or 190? Are credit hours really the most beneficial way to measure student progress toward a credential? What about the reasons behind certain graduation requirements or mandates? While some decision may have solid reasons behind them, others do not. Either way, the reasons behind the regulations are not always clear, and there is no small amount of political influence on school regulations. Nonetheless, some educational decisions are informed more by compliance with given policies or regulations than anything else.
There is a reason why some practices stand the test of time, and that is not to be ignored. I am not arguing that we should flippantly abandon traditions in our educational organizations. Traditions can be helpful and stabilizing. At the same time, tradition alone may not be the best justification for every decision. If the medical field only made decisions based on tradition, then current practice would be void of many helpful, promising, even life-saving practices and strategies. The same is true when it comes to our educational decision-making process.
Reason and Wisdom
What is the reasonable thing to do? Using common sense and plain reason is an important part of functioning in daily life, not to mention providing a quality educational experience for learners. A good dose of common sense can be a powerful tool as we seek to make wise decisions about how to allocate resources, what will be helpful, and what will not. However, reason apart from some other tools for decision-making can also lead us astray. We can, for example, philosophize our way into some rather troubling educational predicaments.
Faith and Convictions
This is an important means of making decisions. There are underlying beliefs and convictions of everyone in the field of education. Reason alone does not work for most of us. For example, maybe something might appear to be the reasonable or logical thing to do, but is it ethical? Does it align with our core beliefs and convictions? Consider how the Amish make decisions about technologies. It could be argued that they are not anti-technology as much as they are pro-community. If they sift their technological decisions through their community-based values-strainer, some technologies don’t make it through. As such, leveraging our faith and convictions in decision-making requires knowing and articulate those convictions, and then using them in the decision-making process. Neil Postman’s questions to inform technology-related decisions can be a helpful tool in this process (http://etale.org/main/2009/04/17/neil-postman-and-media-ecology/).
Data-driven Decision Making
Without convictions and reason, data is unhelpful. However, data-driven decision-making is about collecting the necessary data to help you make the best decision in a given circumstance. Should we buy interactive whiteboards for every classroom? How about collecting the most useful data to inform your decision? What is the teacher readiness? What training is necessary for teachers to use them well? What will the cost be and how will that impact our ability to spend on other important things? Or, perhaps we buy a few interactive whiteboard and collect data on how they are useful, whether they are improving student engaging and learning. Data-driven decision making is framing the most important questions related to decision, then collecting and analyzing the data that will help us answers those questions and make the best decision.
Decisions Informed by Relevant Research
Education is both an art and science. As a science, there is a massive body of research about the effectiveness of different practices, processes, strategies, and methods. Learning to read and review this research can help with decisions. While research on students in one school does not always directly apply to our specific contexts, reviewing the research can give us a better sense of the possibilities, the potential benefits and drawbacks of given educational innovations. Combine this with a data-driven approach and we have a robust way of making more informed and helpful decisions.
We are humans and not machines. As such, our decision-making processes are complicated. They are not simply a matter of making the reasonable choice, collecting the right research and data, following our gut, going with what is fashionable, or using some perfect recipe of these eight decision-making styles. However, I contend that a heavy emphasis upon the last four is especially important in the 21st and 22nd century. It is important to leverage reason, our convictions, relevant data, and a review of the best research on the subject. We can also benefit from respecting the educational traditions of the past but not blindly following the path of tradition in our educational practices. However, in this era of unprecedented educational change, innovation and experimentation, I am confident that reliance upon fashion-based decisions and personal preferences will quickly lead us down a dangerous path.