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Teaching Kids How to Make Good Choices

Delta’s Decision Makers Playbook, used by several school districts, helps students navigate hot-button issues and find common ground.

Katie Hyslop 4 May

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

As part of his Grade 10 science curriculum, Richard Hortness, a high school science teacher in the Delta school district, asks his students to consider a hypothetical scenario where a nuclear power plant is proposed for the neighbouring American town.

Hortness’ school is in Tsawwassen, just a few kilometres from the U.S. community of Point Roberts, Washington. The nuclear power plant would provide energy with a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels, but also produce toxic nuclear waste and could malfunction in a deadly, disastrous fashion. The students’ job is to decide whether building the power plant would be a good idea, or a bad one.

This is the final project of the nuclear energy unit, following class lessons and independent research days. While students are allowed to confer with each other, this decision is mostly a solo one — students are expected to use the knowledge of nuclear and other energy sources they’ve acquired to explain their stance on whether the plant should be built.

It’s not about giving the right answer, but making a decision and backing it up with evidence: “I do not allow students to say, ‘I don't know/care/etc.,’” Hortness said.

Making your own decisions is a big part of growing up. Every day we make choices — some mundane, like what to eat for breakfast, and some much more consequential, like choosing a career path.

Decision-making forms part of the curriculum from primary to secondary grades, where students are closer to making big adult decisions like voting in an election.

“Teachers are looking at these young adults and saying, ‘In two or three years, you’re going to be a voting adult, you’re going to be out of this school, and you’re going to need to know how to make a good decision and ask good questions,'” Hortness said.

Hortness knew scientific inquiry was part of the expected learning outcomes when he became a science teacher nine years ago. He says a key teaching goal for him is to make the lessons of the classroom relevant to the life students will have outside of school.

Which is why he found a decision-making method used by other teachers in the Delta school district, one that also meets other science curriculum “core competencies” like communication, thinking, and personal and social awareness and responsibilities, appealing. The method was the Decision Maker Moves.

The Decision Maker Moves is a six-step process known as “decision analysis.” The steps are:

  1. “Frame the choice”: identify the problem you’re trying to solve. What must be decided now? What can wait until later?
  2. “Clarify what matters”: what is the aim in making this decision? Who else is impacted by this decision and what are their concerns?
  3. “Generate options”: identify the choices available and their potential impacts.
  4. “Explore the consequences”: what evidence is there for your choices? What biases could be impacting your decision? What don’t you know?
  5. “Weigh trade-offs”: considering all your options, which one sounds best? Are there options you didn’t consider? After this step you make your decision.
  6. “Stay curious”: what did you learn? What questions still need answers?

For Hortness’s nuclear power plant scenario, this means students have to rely on the knowledge they learned that term, but also in previous courses like earth science in Grade 8 and ecology in Grade 9, as well as their independent research and discussions with their peers.

The results are a reasoned conclusion that displays “a huge spread that really shows the skills or areas of development for each student,” Hortness said, adding students are expected to cite their sources.

The six steps and more — including common mistakes people commit when making decisions — are outlined in the The Decision Playbook: Making Thoughtful Choices in a Complex World.

Now in use by at least five school districts, The Decision Playbook has proved so popular with educators that a new book designed for home use will be available this fall.

Hortness has found the model to be a useful inquiry framework for controversial topics.

“We walk through the decision-making pathway and we come up with the options,” Hortness said. The model helps students not only make a decision, but explore their own ethics and values, he said.

‘How do you teach decision-making skills?’

Most people use flawed methods for making decisions, says Robin Gregory, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, and a senior research scientist with Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon.

“Often when people make decisions — kids or adults — they do what they did last time, what other people do, or they just jump in and follow their intuition,” he said.

“I think kids often get overwhelmed because there’s so many parts of a decision or so many places to get information.”

Gregory has been studying decision-making in education since the early 1990s when he was a visiting associate professor of Decision Making Sciences at the University of Oregon.

In the 2010s he brought his research up to UBC, where he championed “decision analysis,” a style that emerged from the Harvard Business School in the late 1960s.

“You think about: what’s the opportunity? What matters to me and others in this situation? What are the different things I can do? What might happen if I do them? What might be great or what might be terrible?” Gregory said.

“It’s a sequenced way of thinking through the steps. So you can still use your intuition, still talk to other people, still check out information on the internet, but it helps organize that process. And really the starting point is to think about what matters: What’s important?”

It wasn’t until Gregory met Brooke Moore, district principal of inquiry and innovation at the Delta School District, in 2018 that the Decision Maker Moves — and the district’s Decision Playbook resource for teachers — began taking shape.

“I gathered some teachers together and we did an inquiry into how do you teach decision-making skills,” said Moore.

Together with decision analysts Lee Failing and Graham Long from the Vancouver-based Compass Resource Management, Moore, Gregory and a group of Delta teachers translated the steps into a six-step model that could be used in classrooms.

Their work, which took place mostly over the summer of 2018, became the hard-copy Decision Playbook resource, published by the district with funding from the Network of Inquiry and Indigenous Education in 2019. It's also a website, where you can download a PDF of the Playbook for free.

The choice to not include “make the decision” as its own separate step was deliberate, Gregory said. The point of the model is to encourage critical thinking about how to reach an eventual decision — not to force one.

“We don't ever want to take away the agency of choice from someone, just as we always hope they will learn from their successes and their failures,” he said.

In Hortness’s exercise, the most interesting conclusions his students draw using the Decision Maker Moves are the ones that connect dots to past learning. It’s a good snapshot of where students are at, he says.

“Going back to [earth sciences in] Grade 8, they say, ‘Because we live in an area that has experienced earthquakes for centuries,’ and then they talk about ecology from Grade 9, ‘any disruption to the environment that affects either producers or apex predators could cause a top-to-bottom or bottom-up effect,’ and then they talk about fallout areas and half-lives, which is all related to the grade 10 curriculum,” he said.

The Decision Maker Moves process has helped his students accelerate their learning and growth as students, too.

“Senior grade teachers have told me that they can tell which students I have had in the junior sciences because they have these skills, and their responses are more elaborate to the questions that they are asking,” Hortness said.

Powerful to hear kids’ voices

Kristen Vogel, an Abbotsford principal, was completing her master’s degree when she first participated in Decision Maker Moves training. Vogel was so impressed she decided to complete her final project on decision-making in the B.C. curriculum, later incorporating the Moves into her own class before becoming a principal.

“It was so powerful to hear the kids' voices and engage them in the decisions instead of it being from the top down,” she said.

“Now that I am a principal in Abbotsford, I got to use the Decision Maker Moves with my staff in creating school goals. It made us examine what is important to us and create a goal that we were all a part of making.”

Joanne Calder, a Grade 6/7 teacher in Delta, was one of the teachers who helped develop the Decision Maker Moves with Moore and Gregory in 2018. While she uses the Decision Maker Moves to help her students think critically about current events, she’s also witnessed students using the steps to settle personal debates.

“When we get a better sense of who we are, what matters to us, I’m finding they’re better able to articulate why their perspective is the way it is,” said Calder, who has trained other teachers how to use the process, including a session at the Provincial Intermediate Teachers’ Association conference last fall with over 100 participants.

“It’s a really powerful way of communicating and being able to voice your perspective, being able to listen to someone else’s perspective, and shift your behaviour and what you think to find common ground with someone else or with the group.”

Tiffany Cherry, who has taught Grades 2, 3 and 4 in Delta, uses the Decision Maker Moves to introduce the concept of decision-making to her young students.

“We often tend to, at this age, make the decisions for the kids because it’s easier and faster,” Cherry said, adding the model can give kids “the space to actually put a question in front of them and not be overwhelmed by the process of figuring out what is the best solution.”

Many teachers who use the Decision Maker Moves, Moore said, practised the model in their own lives or with their co-workers before introducing it in the classroom.

“These are all the skills that you need to engage in a meaningful dialogue with someone, and to also move forward in a good way, as opposed to vote and have some people winners and some people losers,” Moore said.

Many educators are also using the book with their own children, said Moore, adding she has personally found the moves very helpful when making decisions with her family and friends.

“I want it to be something that’s accessible to parents, my friends, to people beyond the teachers that I work with.”

Which is why Moore and Gregory have written another Decision Maker Moves book, Sorting It Out: Supporting Teenage Decision Making for parents, teachers and anyone who interacts with teenagers. Published by Cambridge University Press, Sorting It Out has a tentative November 2023 release.

Even before the book was announced, teachers like Hortness were already encouraging their students to use the Decision Maker Moves at home.

“I joke with the kids, ‘If you guys get really good at this, you’ll never lose a fight with mom and dad again, because you’ll know how to come up with a decision,’” he said.  [Tyee]

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