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.


Online Education and Seeing Her Flaws

When I first fell in love with online education my vision, which, I suppose, is normal at the start of any relationship, became exceptionally myopic. I’d develop some crazy fun and brilliantly educational lesson in Moodle, my students (most of them) would stay engaged, become rock stars, and ace every short cycle or state test placed in front of them. Never mind that when a sub brought them to the computer lab OR when I assigned online work for home the quality and quantity of work would generally be crap…or, more accurately, satisfy the “lowest common denominator” of a passing grade. We were in love. And when you’re first in love you ignore the blemishes and annoying habits.

Technoeducational utopianistas are still in love. These are people I enjoy reading and/or listening to like Clay Shirky, Salman Khan, and those founders of Udacity. And, while I sometimes find myself in their camp (it’s fun to envision educational revolution brought on by Moore’s Law), it doesn’t jive with what I’m seeing in the classroom or in the data. The more I read into their messages (and you can likely lump Arne Duncan, most left/right politicians, our president in this group) that technology will be the saving grace to poor performing students, the more I’m sensing a cop out to the real reasons why students aren’t performing well on those state tests: Poverty.

Freddie deBour has a series of posts on the “need for educational realism”. They’re great posts. Go read them (here and here for starters) for the full arguments and observations – but some gem quotes are as follows:

I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings– marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration– and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me. I signed up to be a compositionist knowing that many, both within and outside of the university, see nothing to respect in the discipline. I did because I love teaching people to write and love researching ways to do it better. I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.

Freddie deBour

The central, simple, most repetitive message of education (starting at much younger grade levels) is to make money is very true. I’m not going to make a value call on that message (perhaps a future post?). But that message has many implications on society and what society we become.

DeBoer continues:

So maybe you can see why I am so deeply frustrated with the Clay Shirky vision, which is really just the consensus view, and pretty much Obama’s major vision for the next era of the American economy. It’s a common saw: the next stage of American abundance requires all of our workers be educated, it’s too expensive to teach them in the conventional academic setting, and so we need to replace the physical university with online colleges, staffed by adjuncts teaching many sections of huge classes. And not only will we be erasing the very notion of individual instructor attention, we’ll be particularly targeting the most vulnerable, most difficult to educate students, the ones who now either never make it to college or drop out at huge rates. This is the perfect expression of an educational discourse that has no connection to the reality of what most schooling is like for most students.


Educating students takes a TON of work, especially when the students you teach are have no educational context from their families, are dealing with extreme poverty at home, and often time facing a bar that, realistically, they’re not all going to be able to jump. That’s not to say they won’t learn or can’t learn (I want to be exceptionally clear about that), but the vision being articulated by many education “leaders” is lacking, as deBour says, educational realism.

The people pushing this vision, tellingly, are almost exclusively people who have little to no connection to the day-to-day work of educating undergraduates in basic skills. Either the people arguing for this are journalists and pundits who have never educated, or they are deans and administrators who haven’t taught undergrads in 20 years, or they are celebrity intellectuals who barely teach and when they do, teach at elite institutions where only the most equipped to succeed are present. The greatest division in educational discourse today is not best understood as progressive vs. neoliberal or something similar. The greatest division, at all levels of education, is between those in the world of media and policy who assert that we have the ability to make miracles happen, and the educators who are actually out there, day-to-day, trying to get students to standards those students cannot meet. We can begin to let our policy discussions reflect on what’s actually happening in our actual schools, or we can continue to engage in pleasant fantasy.


Lots of ideas and concepts to mine here. More to come.

Video, PD, and Conferencing

Sometime in the future I plan to get into the fine points of creating and using video for class (and peer) instruction. I’m still in the experimental stages, but have definitely been convinced of the handiness of some basic video editing software, a flip video, and the ever handy vimeo.com.

Personal geek hero of mine, Dan Myer, posted a very clever “how he does it” video on his blog. I highly encourage those interested to check it out.

Professional Conference Video With Semi-Professional Equipment from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

The Obsessive Permission Culture

I found this embedded on Karl Fischs’ wonderful blog “The Fischbowl” and it pertains to side conversations we’re having in our district.

What’s interesting is that our conversations have focused more on the question of “who owns the content”? That is, who owns, who can copyright, content developed by teachers and used with their students? This is a particularly salient question as we move more of our classes online and, consequently, develop most (nearly all) our material in the electronic (ie “easy to distribute, cheap to distribute”) medium. Might we be starting with the view that the material we create is of the same vain as material created by artists and thus we deserve monetary compensation?

But perhaps we’re operating under the assumption, the paradigm, that Copyright as a means of profit is the only way to view copyright.

Lawrence Lessig (personal hero) argues that we, educators and scientists, need to stop this assumption. Because if we go with this assumption, we are doing more hurt than good.

The presentation is long – a good 60 minutes – but loaded with good thoughts and ideas.