…and you’ll miss the chance, or the science of rapid decision making. The book of the same title, by Malcolm Gladwell, may, at first sight, not seem to have very much to do with teaching and education. However, the main premise of the book centres on the decisions which people take in very short time scales, those decisions that may appear to be taken as a result of intuition, or similar, reactive behaviour.
He discusses the notion of “Thin slicing”. Put as simply as possible, this is described as making decisions with very small amounts of information, often only a few seconds. The claims are backed up with very clear references, particularly from psychological research, so these are not just assertions. Personal relationships, husband-wife, doctor-patient, the power of a glance are all examined. And extended through describing real life situations, such as a discussion between a doctor and a patient, looking for the points in the discussion where the patient lost faith in the doctor, giving rise to the potential for the patient to consider malpractice when the procedure went wrong.
Many examples of rapid decision making are given throughout the book, most notably the story of Paul van Riper, an American army officer, whose background experience, especially in Vietnam, was used by the Pentagon within a simulation of a Middle East battle scenario. Van Riper was often seen as a bit of a maverick, who led from the front and wouldn’t ask someone to do something that he wouldn’t. Battle hardened, used to “the fog of war”, van Riper was to lead the Red team against the official armed forces. He made a link with the American stock exchange and used traders on his team, as he saw clearly on a visit to watch them working, that they made a large number of split-second decisions within a very short time scale. They also demonstrated that they were excellent game players and very strategic in their considerations, but, by experience, had honed this expertise to a point where they may not be totally conscious of the actual decision, but “knew” what to do almost instinctively. Ok, so who won? Was it the might of the American military or the team led by the rogue commander? The Red team won by skilfully recognising the strategic patterns of the established forces and mounting counter attacks which were not only unexpected but devastating. This exercise proved to be prescient, as it came before the Iraq conflict.
Choosing politicians by look, trying to decide whether a statue is a fake, car salesmen are all discussed and Gladwell shows how people can be fooled by wrong instincts, as well as discussing the merits of accepting that many times our instincts are right.
Are teachers makers of rapid decisions? In the classroom, every day, thousands of important decisions are made by adults, often at speed. These are very often responsive to the activities of children, but also relate to the running of the classroom, on many occasions, making decisions to engage and intervene, or to stop a lesson which is not going right. The teachers who are thinking on their feet in such a way are bringing together a great deal of information, as well as the sum total of their reflections on their earlier teaching experiences. They have a wealth of background detail about each child from which they are able to respond, with decisions that determine the subsequent learning steps to be taken. They are capable of decoding behaviour, at a glance, taking remedial steps globally or individually.
Is running a classroom like running a war campaign? Hopefully not in reality, but the essence of decision making is the same, from an overall strategy to many rapid decisions in response to the reaction of the participants. Where teaching can fall down is in the lack of a clear strategy, knowing the direction of travel sufficiently well to be able to either lead the children or have them understand the direction in which they are travelling, so that they might be capable of travelling alone.
The exemplars in the Gladwell book all have a common theme. Where expertise is deployed at speed, there has been beforehand a significant amount of preparatory experience, as well as, in some cases, a predisposition to rapid decision making and action. Experience comes from life as well as the work environment. The individual skills are honed in different settings, so that they form the armoury that supports decision making. In some ways, the old adage that “Practice makes perfect” is well described. However, while this is demonstrated in terms of repetitive practice in sport or military preparation, it is also clear that problem solving also has to be practiced.
Gladwell summarises decision making in two parts:-
A) Successful decisions rely on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking. Teachers have to indulge in visualising the journey that their children will take over the course of the academic year. In doing so, they create the space to think on their feet and to react to circumstance. The absence of strategy puts the teacher into short-term approaches, which may leave teacher and child short of the progress being sought.
B) In good decision making, frugality matters. Classrooms are filled with information and teachers have become very good at ensuring that this is all captured, but, is there too much data and not enough clear information on which to base decisions. Are teachers looking for specific information and missing the bigger picture? Are decisions based on good information or assumption?
In schools, children often experience repetitive individualised activity, but may more rarely be placed into situations where they are required to make decisions. Every subject lends itself to developing challenges within which children can self-select approaches to their solution. Working collaboratively supports articulation and refinement of thinking, group consensus making and achievement through group effort.
For teachers to be able to engage with these approaches, they need to know the direction of travel for the year. Annual planning to provide an overview framework for learning, allows teachers to focus on the medium and short term planning, with a finer focus on the expectations for pupil progress within a lesson, a week or half term. It is possible to develop an argument that some schools demand planning that actively acts as a deterrent to real progress, where the planning is so tight that it precludes spontaneity. In two/three/four class year groups, it is not impossible to find that all the children are being given the same activity, with no differential challenge. Work in sets is often whole class, as there is an assumption that the differentiation is embedded within the overview decision making, differentiation by outcome.
Teachers cannot be responsive to need if they are tied to prescriptive curricula. Therefore they will not develop the skills of rapid response. Perhaps they won’t be in a “war zone”, preferring comfort to uncertainty, but they may also be ensuring that their children grow up with the same lack of responsive, problem solving skills.
Will children in the future need the skills to solve problems?
Don’t blink. The future is on its way and our children will be in charge!