George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Decision Making Is a Life Science

Students in two Omaha magnet schools weigh the pros and cons of every problem.

September 28, 2009
Credit: Getty Images: Juita Kuss

Alexandria, a sophomore at Benson High School Magnet, in Omaha, Nebraska, faced a classic teenage dilemma. An avid hoopster, she'd planned to attend a four-day basketball camp but then realized her little brother's 11th birthday party was scheduled for the final day of the camp.

"I really had to sit down and think about it. What did I value more? This was going to be his one and only 11th birthday," she says. "Should I stay, or should I go? Because I value my family more than I do sports, I decided on the birthday. I feel like I made the right decision."

Alexandria and her classmates at Benson, as well as students at Omaha's Morton Magnet Middle School, have gained an entirely new lens on making academic, career-related, and life decisions during the past couple of years as the two schools have implemented the Whole Institution Decision Education program. Based on concepts developed by the nonprofit Decision Education Foundation (DEF), in Palo Alto, California, and taught in partnership with Stanford University, the program is specifically dedicated to teaching kids the principles of decision making, and it weaves lessons into existing courses.

Decision education -- also known as decision science -- teaches kids to make thoughtful, high-quality decisions rather than snap judgments. Students follow six steps: They frame the problem, think about what consequences matter to them, consider the various choices and alternatives, do research to uncover information needed to make a choice, satisfy themselves that they're using sound reasoning in making a choice, and commit to following through.

"We teach them different tools to use with each step," says Lisa Thompson, magnet coordinator at Morton. For example, at step three of a science lesson, a teacher might ask students to consider the following question: What are the alternative solutions we can consider for this science problem?

Or for step four during a history lesson, the teacher may have the students answer this question: Is there any information that, if you had possessed it at the time, might have helped you make a better decision?

"It's about taking a protocol and applying it to any decision," says Benson principal Lisa Dale. "The idea is to train them to make something other than split-second decisions, to look at various characteristics and pieces of what goes into making a good, quality decision. They apply it through project work."

Getting Started

At Benson, decision science begins with a freshman research seminar. The subject is interspersed throughout the school's curriculum during all four years of the high school experience. For any sophomores, juniors, and seniors who may have missed out on the freshman seminar, the school offers upper-level alternatives that allow them access to the program.

Morton's students in grades 5-8 take a class each year focused on decision science, then put the concepts into practice in other subject areas. "When you tell the students, 'You’re going to learn decision science,' there's this kind of glazed look," chuckles Peggy Pavlik, magnet coordinator at Benson. "But when you proceed to show them what they're going to do, they become more engaged."

Educators have applied the curriculum to team-taught, combined sophomore classes at Benson. A combination chemistry and English class last year examined ways to reduce radiation in students' daily lives. They read Hiroshima, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by John Hersey detailing the aftermath of an atomic bomb explosion, and examined how radiation is created, what its impact can be, and how to reduce exposure. The exercise walked them through all six steps of the decision-making process.

There is also a heavy technology component to decision science that mostly ties into the research step. "We gather information from the Internet," Thompson says. "We subscribe to encyclopedias, and students use the Internet quite a bit for news and to find out what's going on in the community. We use technology to communicate, gather information, and show what we've done."

Students have used decision science to hash through everything from how they might have comported themselves as African Americans prior to the civil rights movement to how best to honor the nation's veterans to how to convince motorists to use seat belts and teenagers to eat healthily and exercise regularly.

In the class about the challenges and barriers African Americans faced in the mid-20th century, students brainstormed alternatives for how they might have responded as civil rights pioneers -- some nonviolent, such as writing letters to the government, and others that involved taking up arms. They took into account their values -- a key piece of the decision chain -- and decided that they did not want any killing, which ruled out the violent alternatives. Next, they looked at what actually happened in history.

"When they read about some of the things that happened with Malcolm X, they would ask, 'Really? They actually did that?'" notes Jennifer Meyer, the DEF's senior program director. "They had a very personal response to it, because they had thought about their own values. Of course, they couldn't fully put themselves in the mind-set of the people who were actually there."

Nick, who just started his sophomore year at Benson, defines the core of decision education as finding out what the problem is, thinking outside the box to come up with alternatives, and narrowing them down to pick the most doable. "We learned a lot about how to research and how to pick out information that is useful and relative to your problem," he explains. "I've used it outside of school and in regular classes."

Growing the Curriculum

Decision science came to Omaha, one of several areas in the country that employs the program, through a personal connection: Meyer had been teaching the concepts and methodologies to business executives through her work at the Strategic Decisions Group (SDG), a for-profit consulting firm that incubated and then spun off the DEF. Her father, Ron Meyer, once worked as a magnet specialist at the Omaha Public Schools, and he continued to help out as a contractor. And when the two newly christened magnet schools needed a theme, he made the suggestion.

"As professional consultants, we kept running into people who said, 'I wish I had learned this a lot earlier in life. I wish I could teach this to my kids,'" Meyer says of her business clients at SDG. "Omaha was pretty far down the path of developing a magnet concept when the DEF came along."

One of the features that attracts students to magnet schools is a strong curriculum, explains Sandra Day, the school district's magnet coordinator. "We literally started to scour the Internet for programs that were rigorous. One of the things we landed on was this Stanford decision-making group. How do you make a decision in today's world? Is there some way to apply some upper-level skills to that?"

The district spent a year developing the curriculum before implementing it in fall 2007 and has spent the two years since training teachers and administrators in groups of about 30. These educators receive 28-40 hours of training, some in small doses during the school year and some in week-long sessions during the summer.

Teachers earn stipend pay for time outside of regular school hours. When teachers are out of the classroom for training, substitutes take over. Unlike any other schools throughout the country that use decision science, however, the Omaha magnet schools simultaneously tie the curriculum to project learning and service learning.

To infuse the decision-science curriculum into specific subjects, the district has worked with teachers to develop decision problems -- questions of interest related to the teacher's content area, Pavlik explains. Instead of just teaching the theory of decision science, teachers give students practical ways to carry it out. "The students are not just making decisions for the sake of making decisions," Pavlik adds. "They're doing it so they can have an impact on an issue of some importance to them."

Benson freshman student Nick enjoys the work. "They're training us to solve problems we haven't imagined yet and showing us how to work cooperatively with people we do and don't know," he says. "We have a lot of freedom. They'll give us a month-long decision-science problem -- for instance, figuring out how students at Benson can educate fellow students about reducing the rate of obesity -- and cut us loose. Then we decide how to help solve that problem."

When describing what they like about this curriculum, students mention the word freedom over and over, because the teachers understand the importance of giving their students independence. "It's a lot of work, but it's so much more fun," says Pavlik. "It's not about what somebody standing up in front of you thinks you should do. It's about what you think is important to do."

In Nick's freshman year, his research seminar chose whether to work alone or with partners, which resources to use for research, and how to present their findings. Nick's group narrowed its choices to creating a game that would teach people how to stay fit, devising a humorous advertisement in which someone in a carrot costume beats up someone dressed as a Snickers bar, and passing out flyers and pamphlets on street corners. They ended up choosing to create the game and give presentations at school.

The group in which Alexandria participated chose to do a sports tournament over other alternatives such as a 5-kilometer walk, which would have taken longer to organize and been more costly, or a fitness lab, which they weren't sure they would be able to follow through with over time.

In each of these anti-obesity projects, the six-step decision-science process prompted students to consider the various alternatives and to brainstorm about the pros and cons of each one -- although, in this instance, formal research was less involved than in other projects. Then they made a numerical chart to weigh which aspects of each option they valued most in order to proceed through step five, when they made certain they were making the right choice.

Evaluating Students' Learning

To evaluate students, the DEF has experimented with multiple-choice testing, but "it doesn't tell whether the decision making that went on is going to make a difference in their lives," Meyer says. "I always like to ask, 'Where else in your life do you see applications for decision making?' And it's always fun to see kids make the connection." Meyer remembers asking a Morton seventh grader which steps of the process she found most useful. She responded, "I like the values step, because I don't always think about consequences."

Equally important are the life skills students are gaining through the combination of decision science and project learning: the ability to think imaginatively, collaborate and work in teams, manage a project, and present material in front of an audience. "Students recognize that those skills are going to serve them extremely well, no matter what they do," says Benson's Lisa Dale.

Teaching-Staff Decisions

Among the challenges the district's Sandra Day sees in replicating such a curriculum elsewhere is explaining the concept, which she's had to do for school board members and administrators on multiple occasions. "You say 'decision sciences' to people, and they ask, 'What in the world is that?'" she says. "It's difficult to develop a 30-second elevator speech describing it."

Resource issues also come into play for any new curriculum that requires professional development and training, especially during tough budgetary times. "If folks don't see why it's necessary, the resources might not seem necessary," Day says.

But according to Omaha educators, the real-life skills that students learn make the curriculum well worth the preparation and dollars involved. "Every decision we make has some effect on us. The more quality decisions we make, the better our lives turn out," Thompson says. "Decision-making skills are beneficial for a lifetime. We can apply them in every area of life -- academic, social, personal, and professional. We're developing critical thinkers."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois, who primarily covers education, youth, and community development for magazines, nonprofit organizations, and university centers and departments.

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  • 6-8 Middle School
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