There are many schools of thought on how we make decisions. Some people seem more rational, and others seem more emotional. Some take a short-term view, and others take a long-term view. Personally, I think we all do all of these things at different times. The problem though is when we make decisions in the wrong way in high-pressure situations with long-term consequences. There are very few decision points that change our lives. We need to equip our students with the tools to make the ‘right’ decisions under pressure. Here’s a guide on how we can teach our students to practise making better decisions.
How should we make decisions?
I recently read Winners: And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell, a former political advisor. In Winners, he explores the different ways that people at the top of their game (sport, politics, business, etc) behave, make decisions and form a ‘winning’ mindset, in order to achieve success. His main theory throughout is that most, if not all of the people he studied, were adept at formulating and operating the following three-part system:
Set a clear objective
Students are given objectives all the time. They could be learning objectives, punctuality and attendance targets, predicted grades for assessments, obtaining entry to a good university, etc. However, many students don’t know what their targets are. At the risk of sounding like I’m preaching to the choir, sharing these objectives with students is crucial to raising achievement. Having the students write them down and reflect on them is a simple but effective way of cementing the objective in their minds.
For example, if a student wants to attend a good university then they need to write this objective down. They then need to be able to explain why this objective is important to them and what the pros and cons of setting this objective might be. Evaluating the objective helps the student to appreciate more fully why they are seeking to achieve it. Without this discussion, they risk falling into the trap of asking “why am I bothering with this?” when times get tough in pursuit of the objective.
How do we set the ‘right’ objective?
As usual, it’s a case of practise, practise, practise. Students (and the rest of us!) need reminding, each time we make a crucial decision, that we should step outside of ourselves and take a range of perspectives. That way, we avoid (or at least minimise) the risk of making poor judgements or of basing our decisions on the wrong factors. Setting the ‘right’ objective can save a lot of time and effort.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson says that if you have a good idea, then share it with as many people as possible. The upside is that by presenting your idea or decision to a range of people, you will refine it through debate. If at the end of your conversations you still want to make the same decision, then it’s probably already had the wrinkles ironed out – your decision will be the right one and will avoid many of the problems that an unexamined decision would encounter.
Define your strategy
Strategy is everything. But what is it? Isn’t it just the same as tactics? No. Strategy is a static idea which underpins your tactics so that they all pull in the same direction. An example of a strategy to achieve the objective of obtaining a good university place might be “demonstrate a high level of ability to admissions teams”. This might seem like a tactic, but it isn’t – it’s very broad and can be implemented in a number of ways. You’ll see the difference when I outline “tactics”.
Strategy should rarely, if ever, change. In Winners, the ability to stick to a strategy, no matter what else is going on, is a key difference between those at the top and everyone else. Students need to be reminded of this. Give them examples of strategies you’ve employed in your own lives, to achieve success in your career, how you were able to afford to buy a house, or how you completed a marathon. Alternatively take inspiration from top performers in sports, music, politics, etc. Students are much more likely to engage if they see someone relevant to themselves going through a similar struggle.
Formulate tactics that support your strategy
Tactics are the individual actions you perform in order to uphold your strategy. In the example above, the strategy is “demonstrate a high level of ability to admissions teams”. There are a number of tactics that students can implement to help this strategy. Revision, attendance, enrichment activities, independent learning, work experience, responding to feedback, teaching others, maintaining a ‘growth-mindset’, writing a strong personal statement, etc. These tactics are all employed to implement the strategy.
Tactics are much more subject to the ever-changing conditions of the world we live in. Football managers often change tactics at half-time, or when they substitute a defender for an attacker. Tactics must be relevant to the individual situation and to the individual person. Tactics must always, however, support the strategy. If they do not, then a different tactic should be used. If unsure of what tactic to use, refer back to the strategy. When the strategy is implemented well, the objective will be met. Simple! (Just stick to the strategy!)
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Andy McHugh and published with kind permission.