The following article appeared in Independent School Magazine, Summer 2007.
To view the original source, click here.
Better Decisions – Better Lives
A New Focus on Decision-Making at the Haverford School
Dan Slack, Mark Thorburn
What is a good decision? How do we make them in schools? While we believe in producing capable citizens of high character, are we providing our students with tools to help them make the best choices?
To make progress on a stated mission goal that all graduates have the ability "to think critically and communicate effectively," The Haverford School is addressing these questions through a school-wide focus on decision skills. Recognizing the close connection between making good choices and using effective critical thinking, we established a partnership with the Decision Education Foundation (DEF), an organization committed to teaching decision skills to young people. Instead of an "add-on" program that might limit the success of this initiative, we chose whole-school integration of a plan designed for students and adults in the community. Why both? Because we believe it is important for students to see the adults around them "practice what they teach."
Our journey began in 2003, when a group of parents expressed their belief in the value of decision skills for young people. Inspired by the idea, Headmaster Joe Cox charged two senior administrators with the task of looking into possible applications of decision science at the school. Assistant Headmaster Mark Thorburn and former Head of Lower School Dick Baroody attended a four-day corporate decision-making seminar run by Dr. Paul Schoemaker, research director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Impressed by the course, Thorburn and Baroody invited Dr. Schoemaker to present an introduction to decision science for department heads and faculty leaders. Later that year, Dr. Schoemaker also spoke to students about probability and risk at an upper school assembly.
Interest in the topic spread. During the summer of 2004, eight Haverford representatives attended a DEF sponsored two-week seminar on decision making. The group included teachers from the English, math, science, and language departments, as well as department heads and administrators. Reports from the group highlighted the value of decision-making skills for students. One Haverford participant made the following comment:
The course material was engaging and the presentation was lively, but I was particularly intrigued by the reaction of the eight attendees from Haverford. Now, in the past, whenever I had participated in a conference with a group of educators, there was never a unanimous opinion on whether or not the time spent was productive and valuable. Not so after the 2004 DEF institute. When we met at the end of the two weeks, each member of our group commented not only about the personal value of what they had learned, but also about the fact that they saw applications to their own professional responsibilities at school, including teaching the skills to their students – and I am not just talking about the math and science teachers: the language and English folks, as well as the administrators in the group, all had the same enthusiastic response.– Haverford participant
This group's positive experience led to the development of a five-year plan to train faculty and staff in decision skills and to deliver a decision-making curriculum to all Haverford students before they graduate from the school. So far, the following events have taken place:
- To launch the plan, in October 2004, faculty leaders and administrators attended a one-and-a-half day introductory course on decision skills sponsored by DEF.
- Coached by DEF board member Jeff Foran, we applied decision skills to an important and complicated school issue: "Is the AP curriculum the best we can provide for our students?" The result is that Haverford now offers advanced classes independent of the College Board. These new courses are more tailored to the needs and interests of our students and are unrestricted by the Advanced Placement curriculum and exam schedule. The decision-making process was successful because it enabled the various groups involved — students, parents, teachers, administrators, and board members — to navigate the complexity, look at the issue objectively from a variety of perspectives, and give the final decision positive support.
- In August 2005, Haverford hosted a week-long DEF Summer Institute. Following the training, faculty and staff members representing all three divisions of the school began designing curriculum for their students. Later, the group spent two full days, one in November and one in April, developing and refining their projects with DEF consultants.
- Haverford hosted a second DEF Summer Institute in June 2006. Twenty-two members of the faculty and staff attended this week of professional development, and nine more faculty members began curriculum projects for their students. This group spent two full days, one in October 2006 and the second in April 2007, sharing and developing their lesson plans with each other.
- Since August 2006 (and running through July 2007), former Dean of Faculty Dan Slack worked with DEF to develop lesson plans that integrate decision skills with traditional English curriculum in grades five through 12. In February 2007, Slack was appointed academic dean in charge of helping manage the implementation of decision education at Haverford.
Because decision skills apply directly to the way we act with each other in a community, we are finding numerous places for exploring decision-making outside of academic courses.
Now, three years since we first considered the connection between making good choices and critical thinking, our decision-making initiative is branching out in a number of directions, and we are already enjoying some initial fruit of our work. For example, as adults in the school begin to share a common language for decision making, our time resolving issues becomes more engaging and productive, and learning basic skills related to group decision situations makes us more creative and efficient in our meetings. These skills are also helping us better articulate and organize all-school strategic initiatives.
And results are appearing in the lives of our students as well. We have developed three distinct methods for introducing and teaching decision skills:
1. The stand-alone course.
A senior math elective gives students the opportunity to explore advanced topics in decision analysis and to apply what they learn about probability and risk to real-life situations ranging from choices involving sports and travel to decisions about dating and honesty.
2. Units within already existing curriculum.
Most often we teach decision skills by integrating them with lesson plans in various disciplines. For example, students in an upper school physics class apply the decision making process to a summer reading project and use choices and their consequences as a focus for discussion throughout the course. The framework for decision making provides an engaging method for students in a middle school English class to analyze character development in the literature they read. Specifically, they write about decisions that surface in Lois Lowry's The Giver; as the year progresses and students become more familiar with the language and process of decision making, they complete a careful analysis of challenging situations presented in Chris Crowe's The Mississippi Trial.
3. Teaching beyond the classroom.
Because decision skills apply directly to the way we act with each other in a community, we are finding numerous places for exploring decision-making outside of academic courses. In the lower school, for example, Dean of Students Jay Brown has developed a program to help students examine particular personal qualities or virtues that lead to making good decisions. He has also designed a new process to address individual discipline issues: the student in trouble uses the process of good decision-making to engage in a conversation about the incident, to reflect on his actions, and to develop a plan to avoid making a similar mistake in the future.
While we first viewed our exploration of decision skills as a practical step in delivering on one of the Essential Qualities of a Haverford Graduate – "to think critically and communicate effectively" – we are learning that the initiative is providing much more than we first anticipated. Helping our students focus on how to make good choices enables us to address topics that include and go beyond what is listed in the "intellectual" category of our Essential Qualities (see sidebar on page 98). Other connections with the Essential Qualities include:
- The movie about decision-making and bullying created by fifth graders encouraged these young students to develop their moral and citizenship capacities.
- Use of decision skills in the college choice process is helping students and parents gain self-knowledge by focusing their attention and conversation on values and alternatives.
- As seventh-grade students evaluate characters' choices in Tolkien's The Hobbit, they are exercising their moral as well their intellectual abilities.
- And – one of the most recent initiatives – teachers in kindergarten through third grade are developing a sequential curriculum to increase their students' self-knowledge: the plan is to use decision skills to help these young boys avoid impulsive behavior.
As this list of examples demonstrates, decision skills are gradually becoming a part of the fabric of our culture at all levels of the school, and our focus on decision making is helping us address mission goals in profound and practical ways.
Dan Slack is the academic dean at The Haverford School (Pennsylvania). Mark Thorburn is Haverford's assistant headmaster.
About the DECISION EDUCATION FOUNDATION
By Chris Spetzler
Good decision-making is an essential life skill, but most people acquire it only through trial and error – if at all. The Decision Education Foundation (DEF) equips young people with powerful decision-making skills to help them better shape their futures in an uncertain world. The DEF decision-skills curriculum provides youth with a framework to take control of their lives and proactively work toward their goals by making the most of their decisions. The material is based on an approach to making good decisions that has been proven through applications in academic and business communities. DEF works with teachers, administrators, and individuals who mentor youth to learn decision-skills principles and bring the decision-skills materials to their students and institutions.
By educating people in decision-making and arming them with effective methods for tackling challenging situations, DEF pursues the vision, better decisions – better lives, for all individuals. Today's youth are tomorrow's leaders. Clearer thinking about decision-making will yield profound benefits for us all.Chris Spetzler is the program director at The Decision Education Foundation.
For more information, visit www.decisioneducation.org