Working in the often frenetic environment of a schools often poses senior leaders to be faced with the task of making swift and decisive decisions. When out of school, I often play ’email Top Trumps’ with colleagues to see who has the highest number of unanswered emails. My average email count is in the high sixties after an afternoon away from my inbox and it is often the case that I am trumped by colleagues with in excess of one hundred unanswered emails. When walking the corridors in school, I am often met with several demands for decisions or questions about unresolved issues that demand a timely and decisive response. As school leaders face the myriad of questions and problems, it is often tempting to fire out solutions and answers to complex issues or make swift decisions on developmental practice without asking deep and searching questions about the issues at hand. It is, therefore our challenge as school leaders to slow down and develop the art of thinking slow when making important decisions.
I came across the concept of ‘slow thinking’ in a book by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book explores the concept of cognitive bias ‘heuristic’, namely providing a simple and often imperfect answer to a difficult question. He explores two systems of thinking, one that is described as ‘lazy thinking’ that is open to influence and emotion and one that is conscious of the heuristic influences at work.
Kahneman explains that the lazy thinker will answer a complex question by presuming they know everything there is to know about the problem. This is the concept of ‘WYSIATI’:
Slow thinking – resolving a parental complaint
I have used Kahneman’s WYSIATI concept when approaching complex problems in school. It is easy to be drawn in by a passionate and heartfelt problem explained by a staff member or parent and to presume that this is the only information you require in order to resolve the issue. For example, a parent may raise a concern about bullying in the classroom. Taken at face value and thinking fast to resolve the issue, the issue can be resolved by speaking with the bullies and sanctioning them with a stern warning to abate any future bullying. Oh, but if it were always so simple! Let us now presume WYSIATI is not the complete picture. With WYSIATI in mind, we then speak to the other children involve and to those witnesses in class who are impartial. At this point we ascertain that there is no perceived intent to bully and the allegation appears spurious. Once again, we could leave this issue here as resolved, but once more WYSIATI may have clouded your understanding of the issues and therefore make any resolution at this point trivial. When we dig further, we speak with the child again and discover that one of the children she was accusing was absent on the day of the alleged bullying; at this point the child in alleged to have been bullied breaks down and admits she is concerned about an incident at home relating to online bullying from a penpal on a social media site from USA who has threatened to fly over to the UK and ‘beat her up’ (yes this actually happened). The girl in question was not able to admit to her mother why she was crying as she was not allowed on the social media site and fabricated a bullying incident to explain her tears. By using the simple presumption that there may be more information about a problem than you first presume, the understanding of the problem and consequential action becomes far deeper.
Kahneman teaches us that a presumptuous confidence that you have a deeper understanding of a situation than those around you can restrict thinking and therefore lead to poor decision making. Applying this concept to decisions made about curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning opens out a research-based approach to school improvement and strategic planning.
Slow thinking – strategic development
The concept of slow thinking can also be applied to strategic development. Our Senior Team applied slow thinking to the introduction of our system of assessment without levels. Our initial thoughts, now over two years ago, were to stick with levels to assess progress and attainment as we understood them and had invested much time in refining our teacher’s understanding of the levels. David Didau has also written a super book entitled What if everything you knew about education was wrong? David explores a range of heuristic that leads us to make judgements as mental shortcuts and echoes the research of Daniel Kahneman on cognitive bias. David Didau talks about the ‘sunk cost fallacy’, this occurs when you continue with an action or decision because you have invested significant time or money in it, regardless of whether it is the right action or decision. This was a concept our Senior Team grappled with deeply with assessment beyond levels as our time investment in the current assessment system was significant and we found this very hard to relinquish. Understanding that we needed to move to a different assessment system, while not jumping at an easy solution allowed our Senior Team to ask deep and searching questions about the best route ahead for our children, staff, governors and parents. As a result of deep thinking, the school has adopted an assessment system that has integrity and purpose with a process , carefully managed by the Senior Team (@primaryreflect, @MisterHackett, @AnneMarieMiddle and @KS1Rocks), that has given ownership to all. Slow thinking allowed us to work beyond the majority of pitfalls before we tumbled in.
David Didau @learningspy also provides a very useful checklist in his book devised by a surgeon, Atul Gawande, who devised questions that to slow thinking in junior doctors who faced the immense pressure of making quick but at times flawed decisions on the A&E ward. This checklist is worth a read as it acts as a check on your cognitive bias, allowing you and your team to check that you haven’t fallen into Kahnaman’s WYSIATI trap.
Go forth and think slow
Thinking slow has deepened our Senior team’s ability to understand complex problems and provide solutions that have deep and lasting impact on the quality of provision at Warden House. The concept of slow thinking can also be applied to the classroom environment as students face complex problems and engage in lazy thinking because of their cognitive bias. The concept of slow thinking can also underpin a culture of research-based learning for staff, leading to deep changes in practice.
I challenge you to have a go at slow thinking and build in time to ask yourself whether WYSIATI. I would love to know how you get on.
Didau (2015) What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Crown House PublishingThinking
Daniel Kahneman (2012) Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow Penguin Books