Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Making Decisions

by Ed Latham

Some nine years ago, I started questioning the way we adults make decisions as a society. I have been looking at ad campaigns, listening to radio, looking over Internet sales pitches for many issues that have come to vote. Pushing a point of view seems to be a universal human quality throughout time. There is a rising concern about how people push, versus share, a point of view and what effect that is having on how we are raising our children.

We ask children to look at all sides objectively and then, after weighing the pros and cons, make a decision that the individual will feel good about supporting. Can we even do that now? The key word here is objectively. People are passionate about what they want and how they believe. What percentage of adults can put aside how we feel long enough to explore all options, then reintroduce our feelings into the equation and make a good decision? Parents and teachers often agree that students need to be able to process decisions considering both emotional and logical rational, but those same adults are increasingly unable to process that way as a social group. How then are we teaching our kids to do the same?

In some classrooms, there are no opportunities for discussion or variation of opinion. Even in some classrooms that allow for discussion, some students may feel intimidated if they don't agree with the teacher or their peers. In some of the most open discussions, there is a sense from children that someone has to win. Educationally, we have taken learning to the level where freedom of expression is squashed by fear of being not with the majority. When a student gets work back, they almost never care about what they need to improve on, they look to the number or score to see if they reached a high enough score to move on to the next level or at least keep adults off their case for another two weeks. Fear of failing is not only inhibiting learning in some students, but is causing society members to make decisions out of fear instead of making informed decisions based on considerations of emotional and logical reasons.

In most any political decision in the last 9 years, there are usually two opposing arguments. Here is where the problem starts. Both camps are based on strong human characteristics and yet there is never a middle ground in our "adult" systems. Therefore, there is a constant fear that if we side with A then we are good/bad. From a child's point of view, the student even sees option D. None Of The Above, until the child learns that even though the option exists, rarely is it ever utilized. The decision process for adults has almost become religious. Either you believe as this camp does or you are in danger of being excommunicated or shunned by peers. All of those pressures, to fall into one camp or the other, are all based on fear of rejection. No matter the outcome, one camp is feeling like a victim.

For our kids, many of whom see adult decisions as right/wrong, good/bad, supporting the country/against the country, we need to look at ways we allow for differences or middle ground and for exploration of systems that may allow for differences to exist more harmoniously. Already our youth face pass/fail, teacher's pet/problem child, fitting in/social outcast issues every day. Do our current practices of working with children help to create the very same fearful behaviors that have been guiding our political and legal systems for years?

The inability to use both camps of reasoning and still "fit in" is creating a society of people that are becoming more and more out of touch with making decisions blend rather than polarize. As a result, our society is becoming more polarized, and our kids are watching, while they listen to us continue to extol the virtues of good decisions, getting along with others, and being accepting of differences.

How do we stop this perpetual cycle of decisions (kids and adults) made out of fear of not belonging or fear of causing someone to loose or someone to gain advantage? Insurance companies are thinking about changing health care based on personal choices we make. Many other aspect of "universal access" to things are going to go away because of the economics of a capitalistic society. The decisions we make individually are going to become more and more relevant as to how we are treated, not by other people, but by the government and businesses and organizations. This individual accountability for our decisions seems so polar opposite to the way social decisions are made (where you either gain with this vote or loose with that vote). I don't have solutions, but this polarization of emotional reasoning and logical reasoning is limiting individuals' rights to make decisions and not be punished for not conforming to either side of an issue. This is how wars begin and how conflicts continue to persist over huge tracts of time. Do we need more than two options? Can we even come up with a middle ground any more after discussion if people fear winning or loosing? Does the limitation on student choice in our education system help promote polarization into adulthood?


Pam Kenney said...

I agree, Ed, that the often polarizing societal climate today has spilled over into our schools. Lessons on critical thinking, thinking for yourself, tolerance, and compromise, however, rarely translate into changes in habits. Teaching and parenting by example do help, though. If children can observe and participate alongside the significant adults in their lives thinking through political issues, for example, without jumping on any bandwagons, all the while maintaining a strong sense of self, slowly they will internalize the necessary skills and develop the maturity of thinking required to be thoughtful citizens.

We might also discuss with our children the recent accomplishments of our own Maine senator, Olympia Snowe, who is a pretty good role model now for trying to compromise and build consensus during an intense period of polarization.

Ed Latham said...

Pam, you cite Mrs Snows work to try to offer compromised opinions and I agree it is nice to see other options being supported. At the same time, the polar groups are claiming defection on one hand and wooing over from the other side. All that fuss over someone taking a stand on what she feels is right for others. Can teachers please share examples and stories here from their classroom where there was a discussion or activity that had extreme differences presented and at the end, there was not a feeling of "we won"? If not, I challenge all teachers to come up with such an activity and I would love to work with you on that!

Pam Kenney said...

Teachers have opportunities to gather their students in a group to model conflict resolution, consensus-building, tolerance, empathy, generosity, and point-of-view every day. Just stand at the door after recess, and you'll get an earful of that day's transgressions committed on the playground. "It's not fair" is a fourth grader's mantra. Yes, it takes time to lead your students through the process necessary to shift their focus from winning each argument to learning to live together, but finding just ten minutes during a busy day to help children learn to work through their differences is worth the effort.