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Understanding decision-making in educational contexts

2nd June 2021

Author: Stephanie Chitpin, University of Ottawa, Canada

How is decision-making carried out in educational contexts? Should leaders follow their gut feelings and intuition, or should they partake in critical decision-making?

Questions such as these have long engaged academics in their work. In fact, my research interest centres upon such topics. Throughout my career, I have argued and demonstrated that the use of critical rationalism may be best suited for decision-making in an educational context. While I do believe that intuition-based decision-making can be used to solve simple, direct, or day-to-day issues, engaging in critical and rational decision-making is key when facing complex, novel, or multi-faceted issues. According to Sir Karl Popper, to be a critical rationalist is to continuously attempt to falsify one’s beliefs or practices in order to ensure reliability, validity, and rigour. In this way, one does not simply accept something as true but rather submits that, for the time being, a given belief is not untrue.

Through my research, which is based on the philosophies of Sir Karl Popper, I have developed a decision-making framework called the Objective Knowledge Growth Framework (OKGF), depicted below. The OKGF aims at incorporating the element of falsification into decision-making in order to minimize the risk of confirmation bias and the use of ineffective solutions.

OKGF cycle

The OKGF is a framework that guides decision-making in three simple steps. We begin by identifying the problem we wish to resolve, P1. For example, we could consider the problem of school absenteeism. Then, the decision-maker is invited to propose a tentative theory or solution to that problem, TT1. In the case of our example, we could posit that a tentative solution would be to provide sanctions for students who miss more than three school days in a month. Once the solution is elaborated, it is tested for potential errors through the error elimination phase, EE1. This is where Popper’s critical rationalism comes into play. To avoid personal or confirmation biases, the decision-maker is asked to objectively test whether their proposed solution meets all aspects of the initial problem by subjecting it to falsification.

More often than not, decision-makers find their solution partially resolves the issue at hand or, in some cases, that the problem did not encompass all factors at play. To take it back to our example of school absenteeism, we could find that the proposed solution of imposing sanctions creates inequitable disciplinary actions within the school. We may also find that the initial problem erroneously assumed that students showing high absenteeism were healthy and well. After all, it could be that those students or their primary caregivers have severe health concerns which impact the student’s ability to get to school.

In either case, the decision-maker must now re-evaluate their initial solution. There are two methods through which this can be done. In the case where the initial solution is deemed to be flawed, the decision-maker is invited to develop a second solution, TT2, which is further adapted to the situation at hand. On the other hand, if the initial problem is lacking key aspects, then the problem should be reformulated, P2. The cycle then continues until the best fit for the given problem within the current context is found. However, it remains critical to monitor the appropriateness of the solution, as no solution or decision is ever perfect.

Stephanie ChitpinNow you may be wondering how effective this decision-making framework is in practice.

Throughout the past several years, I have applied this framework in various settings. From NASA to medical doctors to school principals to in-service teachers, the OKGF has been used and continues to be used to ensure the best decisions within these fields are made.

If you are interested in applying the principles of the OKGF, please see my new book, published by Emerald Publishing, called Understanding Decision Making in Educational Context.

The book discusses the theoretical background which supports the OKGF and provides case studies from my research which employs aspects of the OKGF.

Finally, the book provides a series of realistic case studies where you are invited to partake in decision-making, guided by the OKGF, to address the situations described.