It is not very often that I can get to post about a book I have read and directly relate it to school. After reading Chip and Dan Heath’s ‘Decisive’, I had no idea it would turn out that way. As I began to type the review it became clear that I could think of many instances when Chris Nicolls, the Head of  Berkhamsted Boys who is retiring after almost 40 years of service to the school, would do what the Heaths suggest without thinking about it.

I am fascinated with how decisions are made and as I tell my students in my History lessons, we humans often make decisions based on very little information or strong emotions (which can have disastrous consequences as my GCSE students pointed out as we studied the escalation of the bombing campaign in Vietnam). My fascination also stems from my desire to make better decisions for the school and my exposure to other educators who seem so sure that they are right on a policy/technology in schools/how schools work/the education system in general. As someone who is never sure that the decision I make is the ‘right’ one, I find myself asking the following questions when I read the confident pronouncements of my fellow educators:

  • How can they be so sure in their pronouncement?
  • Have they truly considered a variety of alternatives?
  • How did they arrive at this decision?

Chip and Dan Heath’s book has helped me develop a deeper appreciation of the decision making process of others and also how I can make better decisions (notice I am not saying the ‘right‘ decision).

The Heaths identify ‘Four Villains of Decision Making’:

  • Narrow framing – unduly limiting the options considered (normally posited as an either/or not an AND choice)
  • Confirmation bias – seeking out information that bolsters our belief;
  • Short-term emotion – being overwhelmed in the moment;
  • Overconfidence – having too much faith in our predictions.

Narrow framing

Some decisions in schools seems very simple and the Heaths showcase the problem of narrow framing that can hamper organisations.  When confronted with a problem that is framed in this way “Should the school focus on differentiation this year or not?”,  the idea of ‘differentiation’ is in the spotlight and viewed in isolation. A more varied and useful way might be, “Should we consider differentiation this term and then focus on stretch and challenge, or focus on feedback in lessons, or focus on personalisation which can touch upon differentiation at some point?” When confronted with a range of alternatives, it is more likely that the resulting decision is going to be more effective. This is because it forces a process whereby we simply ask “Is there a better way?” or “What else could we do?” Chris is great at asking this question. Just last week I was discussing a problem with him and was thinking more in the ‘yes’/’no’ frame. Chris suggested that we could do what I suggested AND something else. It was obvious but being caught in the narrow frame it was beyond me at that moment.

Confirmation Bias

When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their pre-existing attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

This is something we are all susceptible to and is a danger that any leadership team worthy of its name should consider especiallyy when ‘groupthink’ can take hold. Outside of leadership, this is a common problem and I was very clear when I read the feedback on #TLAB13. Some thought a session was excellent whilst others also thought it was terrible. How could such divergent views exist when they were in the same room and heard the same talk?  The variation can be explained by what people brought *with* them to the conference.

When we want something to be true, we spotlight the things that support it, and then, when we draw conclusions from those spotlighted scenes, we’ll congratulate ourselves on a reasoned decision. Oops.

Confirmation bias is one area that really intrigues me, especially how it is reinforced via social media and the reification of particular (subjective)  points of view.  Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this and another thing the Head is great at is asking for a counter view and listening carefully. He also asks uncomfortable questions from an opposing view as they force you to think carefully about your position and whether the decision has been really been thought through.

Short-term emotion

When I started as a leader in a school, I believed somewhat niavely that the ‘facts should speak for themselves’. The point I soon realised was that people agonise over decisions because they feel conflicted partly because of the issue itself and the associated feelings it has brought to the surface. Chris is great for bringing ‘distance’ into decisions as he would consult other people but also really take the time to separate the issue from his own feelings especially by ‘sleeping on it’ and then coming back to it the following day or a few days later. The Heaths advocate a technique called the 10/10/10 which frames decisions in three time frames: how will you feel about the decision in 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now? The point of thinking of decisions in three time frames is that it forces us to get some distance on the decision.


I beseech you, in the bowels of Christthink it possible that you may be mistaken

I first heard this Oliver Cromwell quote as an A Level Politics student at Tower Hamlets Sixth Form Centre. I remember thinking it sounded ‘cool’ and used it to sound clever when asked to do something at home for the next few months which was not very effective I can tell you (my understanding of Cromwell was also limited and I realised later that he was not great at taking his own advice). The problem we face in making decisions in schools is that we think it is right one. Whenever I believe I have an answer (not the only one) to a problem, Cromwell’s words via my A Level Politics teacher come to the forefront and force me to reconsider.

The Heaths suggest that one way around the issue of overconfidence is to conduct a ‘pre-mortem’ and ask the question: It is 12 months from now and our total project was a total fiasco. It blew up in our faces. Why did it fail? By outlining all the potential problems in this way, plans can be adjusted to take potential pitfalls into account and create ‘tripwires’ that alert you to issues and lead to different actions to keep the project/policy/decision on track. Chris asked the other Deputy Head and I to think about something he had been wrestling with. He clearly *knows* the school and its culture in a way that I can’t even begin to grasp yet here he was asking whether it really was the right decision and asking for our help by working the problem backwards.

There is much more to this book and I do recommend you read it. Apart from making me think more carefully about decision making at school and adjusting plans for next academic year, it brought into stark relief the leadership qualities and processes of the Head. It also proves that sometimes you don’t need to read a book when you work with someone like Chris Nicholls; you just need to listen, watch and absorb as much as you can.


Share Button