Monday, August 15, 2011

Rethinking Education Part 2: Choice and Responsibility

Today I'm going to flesh out just one aspect of the kind of fundamental lesson that has a large impact on wellbeing. Decision making.

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." ~ Yogi Berra

To avoid the sprawling directionlessness of yesterday's post however let me clearly articulate the problem with education as it stands.

Problem: Current education is geared towards an ideal of eliminating risk, or risk aversion. Students are encouraged to expend as much effort as possible to obtain higher marks and subsequently keep as many options as possible. This leaves students averse to making decisions that involve dilemma's and poor at them, worse, many members of society fail to identify where they have made a decision.

For example, I read in a newspaper article around the time 'an inconvenient truth' came out, long before ETS or Carbon Tax discussions were going on, where a Latrobe Valley worker was asked their thoughts on getting rid of the coal fire power plants and he said something to the effect of 'at the end of the day we all have to turn the air conditioner on.' I can't say if this was poorly worded, but air conditioners are a luxury item, nobody is compelled to use them, they are not mandatory yet the notion that they somehow were ostensibly informed the person's attachment to coal fire electricity.

In a more everyday sense I used to come across many people who had bought a house for security reasons, only to discover it had mainly 'secured' their profession for them. That meant they felt unable to leave their job because they were dependant on the income stream to make their mortgage repayments. Many people in this position lack the imagination to create a contingency (whilst also having made an uninformed decision in the first place) - selling the house or defaulting on the mortgage are options, thus you are not actually trapped in your current profession, it just may be unpleasant to leave it. If the consequences of losing the income stream are more unpleasant than continuing to work, you are making a conscious choice.

It has been my experience that few people appreciate choices they make. They feel their life is dictated to them by external circumstance. It is a common trait of depressives, and I feel is something that can be unlearned.

Here is how one might set up the lessons in teaching decision making, with one caveat Economics could be described as the study of decision making and certainly it does provide a theoretical framework however it is materialistic and often abstracted from the lives of those studying it, I would not present 'Decision Making' as a subject in the form of making Economics compulsory:

1. Resources are limited.

Economics does a poor job of teaching what this actually means. Many managers and executives I have come across in my careers, wanderings etc. don't have a full grasp of what limited resources means.

We have to make decisions because resources are limited. If resources weren't limited we could simply DO EVERYTHING. But we can't. Students would learn in the early phases of decision making that we can only spend our time one way or another before considering other resources such as monetary, budgeting etc. The chief purpose is to illustrate that decisions have to be made, with time it will be spent whether you do something or nothing at all.

2. Opportunity Costs.

These are very economic terms, but students then learn to appreciate that a decision to do something is equivalent to deciding not to do anything else. Thus students learn to take conscious ownership of opportunities foregone. The student should appreciate decisions such as 'by deciding to go on exchange for a year, I decided I would not graduate the same year as all my friends.' or 'by deciding to study Accounting I decided I would not spend time studying science anymore.' or 'by committing to the rowing crew, I decided to give up my weekends and mornings to rowing for three months.' or 'by deciding to go on holiday to Europe at the end of the year, I decided to stay with my job until I leave.'

3. Dilemmas

Opportunity cost is all very well, students then graduate onto gaining an appreciation of situations where decisions have to be made where neither outcome is desirable - choosing whether to escape death row by crawling through a tunnel of barbed wire or a tunnel of sand paper. It has practical applications for when life doesn't go to plan and helps people identify what power they do have in undesirable situations. From banal situations like getting dumped 'do I shut this person out of my life and miss their company, or do I expose myself to the emotional pain of our changed relationship?' to medical treatment 'do I undergo the surgery and risk damage to my organs, or do I undergo chemotherapy?' to losing your job 'do I sell the car to save money and ride everywhere, or do we keep it and rent out the guest room to a student?'

4. Identifying options

Few choices are as simple as dilemma's and students can also learn to identify 'bogus dilemmas' that is where you are presented with a 'with us or against us' choice when in fact you don't have to be either. But making decisions well requires some amount of researching what choices are available. Students learn to consider the choices they make rather than leap into them, as well as identifying the time constraints that come with a particular decision. 'The boss offered me a new job, I asked them how long I had to make a decision. They wanted an answer on the spot, but admitted they could wait a few days.'

5. Dealing with uncertainty.

Here economic models would be not entirely wrong but misleading and largely fruitlessly abstract. The temptation is to deal with uncertainty in terms of probability where the odds are known. Rather students learn to identify the possible outcomes of each course of action they may decide to take eg. 'If I take out a loan and buy a house, the house prices may go up making me money or the may go down leaving me in negative equity. If I don't buy a house my money will sit in a bank making 4% interest, interest rates may go up or may go down.' Here students are taught to appreciate the possible consequences of their decision making and thus what possible consequences they decide to avoid, or allow in order to obtain desirable ones. Here students learn about fundamental risks, and making decisions while acknowledging that 'the worst may happen.'

6. Power.

Here is an appreciation of what choices a student actually has, in any situation. Ultimately the students learn that their behaviour for the most part is the only thing they really control, but that this leaves them with choices in almost any situation. 'My partner cheated on me. I decided to react by ceasing the relationship and contact with them.' vs. 'My partner cheated on me, I posted abusive comments about her online and made threatening phone calls to her to make myself feel better.'

7. Responsibility.

Here students learn that the price of being able to choose is to take responsibility for their consequences, even when choices are made under uncertainty. 'We tried a new restaurant and the portions were meagre and the service terrible, but we chose to do something new, we just won't go back there anytime soon.' to 'I'd heard some bad things about heroin, but I decided to try it to try and aleviate my depression. Trying to break my addiction was not worth the high, and it has compounded my problems. I took a risk, I have to live with the consequences.' A big part of successful decision making is being able to live and adapt to the consequences.

Much of today's problems come from an aversion to taking responsibility for the decisions we make. This is I feel viewed as a way to make our lives easier and thus happier. We act like we have no choice about the unpleasant circumstances we find ourselves in, or that problems we create are somebody elses, or that we have some kind of tacit permission from a higher power to act the way we do.

I have observed little to convince me that this actually makes people happier. At the very least their are great benefits in becoming conscious of decisions we make reflexively. People who feel cheated by life and the world make for unpleasant company, their stories of everyone out to get them grows boring very quickly. Bad decision making at least on a social level restricts our future choices and thus our personal empowerment.

I feel 'Choice and Responsibility' are one of those fundamental lessons that once appreciated pay exponential dividends throughout life and also expedite future learning, appreciating where and where we don't have control is fundamental to learning and problem solving, it is a highly transferable skill.

This is but one example of the sorts of stuff I feel 90% of our mandatory education years should be spent on, it is relatively easy to then pick up and learn a very specific expert subject like specialist mathematics, once you have learned how to learn.

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