When Binary Decisions Are Elusive

Decision processes intrigue me especially as I’ve moved into positions that require far more complex decisions on issues that have larger impact. There is the self-reflective part of the process – why do I make the decisions I make – that I’m examining through the most excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow (and if ever there was a book to make us question why we make decisions, that’s the book).

There’s also the process of decision making in a group context. Decision making in a group context can be hard. When anything is hard, I always try use frameworks. Sometimes frameworks need tweaks. Let me explain.

Yes / No Required?

New to the job, I’ve always tried to take complex issues and break them into “if/then” and “yes/no” decision branches. The idea is to force some kind of decision so that progress (or something) can result. I can then plan accordingly.

Say the district has a one time, unique chance to order a couple of dozen Flux Capacitors for special instructional buses that would allow us carve out a few extra months of school for our students (this would solve the unfortunate consequences of the gazillion snow days we’ve had this year).

The decision process would look something like this:

Decision Making 1a

And indeed, sometimes it works this way. You go with yes or you go with no – but either way you move in a particular direction. The job then becomes dealing with the good (or bad) outcomes of the decision.

But it’s Never Truly Binary

There is always a third branch in a yes/no question.

Copy of Decision Making 1a

This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, not answering the question spawns complexities. One of the more enlightening things I’ve learned is that this is sometimes a legitimate and prudent course of action. This issue is that I haven’t learned to decipher well when this is prudent. It’s also quite maddening for me because I tend to be action oriented. In my inexperience, I’m left wondering questions like:

  • Crap, what political implications did I miss? (And if I missed them – is a “not answer” a polite way to communicate to stop asking the question?)
  • Did I not explain the if/then scenarios clearly enough?
  • Is not making a decision protecting the group and/or district in some way?
  • Did I totally botch the timing of asking the question?

The flowchart is a bit miss-leading because not answering questions produces outcomes as well (sometimes outcomes that are remarkably similar to the yes/no outcomes). To me though – a not answer seems to result in less controllable outcomes. And that can be scary. Even when it may be the best course of action.


I Always Tried to Use Chicago Style

Technology creates anachronisms faster than we educators understand and realize.

Take the citation as an example. In high school I turned in papers MLA style (make sure to get the commas in the correct place). For graduate school it was ALA. For my undergraduate senior thesis I went with Chicago Style if only because it suited my desire to explore all kinds of thematic segues without distracting from my central thesis.

When I assigned history papers to my 8th graders, I always spent a good couple of lessons going over how to create a works cited page (MLA). This grew easier over time, as Microsoft and the web added programs that made the process stupid proof (it’s all algorithmic anyway). Getting my students to add quotation marks and citations in their actual texts was, in my opinion, more important than getting semicolons and underlines correct.

Why Do We Cite?

From a writer’s perspective, we cite to give credit where credit is due, to build arguments from other people’s logic, and to lend authority to the thesis we’re trying to prove.

From a teacher’s perspective, we insist our students cite for the above reasons and, honestly, it gives us one more area in a rubric we can associate with their grade (and who hasn’t docked a point or two for missing a comma…or had the conversation with a student on plagiarism).

Also, I think it may serve as an educational right of passage. Or maybe bragging rights among the nerds and academic go-getters. “My Bibliography was 30 pages long in Times New Roman Font Size 8″.

But Why Do We Cite this Way?

Or, more accurately, why do we cite this way still? The era where print copies of papers and essays is waning. Or, as Slate puts it in their excellent post “Stop Citing Your Papers. Start Hyperlinking“:

Conceived during an era when libraries were purely physical places, papers were composed by hand or typewriter, and professors returned graded assignments sprayed with red ink, current systems of citation in academic writing lack value in the digital age. While some will continue to hold out on digital documents, they are quickly becoming the minority as their peers take advantage of digital submission and grading as well as e-readers and computer programs that can easily adjust font, take notes, highlight text, and store (more legible) comments.

Digital documents can contain hyperlinks to the original source material. Which, from a reader’s (and teacher’s) perspective is much more valuable and useful. Think the essayist is making excellent points (so excellent that you start to have questions about their sources)? Follow the hyperlink trail! Think vast quantities are being copied and pasted? Look directly at the source (without having to Google the text)! Want to explore the bigger picture? Hyperlinking is much more effective and removing those barriers of exploration.

I’ve noticed that even when passages of text are not available for reading on the web, it’s becoming more common to simply link to the book title on Amazon (much to Amazon’s joy I’m sure).

MLA and ALA won’t disappear anytime soon. But they likely will as the digital world continues to make inroads on education.