This Week in Uncertainty: Addressing the Gap

In the previous post of This Week in Uncertainty, uncertainty was defined as anything short of the “unachievable ideal” of complete knowledge about the outcome of decisions made.  Acknowledging this identifies that a gap exists between complete certainty and the knowledge we have that we have when reaching a decision which we can call the uncertainty gap. Evidence-informed decision making is one approach which is taken to bridge the uncertainty gap but this is in competition with intuition-based practices arising from experience and judgment. There is a lot out there on these topics and here is a small sample of the literature from my reading on this topic so far.

Which path should I take?

Within education there are different views of how decisions about teaching and learning should be made and the debate often comes down to an either/or choice of professional judgment vs. empirical research.  Hempenstall (2015) defines evidence-based practice as that which relies on  “reliable, replicable evaluation research to support it” (p. 113), but states that this has not always been the case and that educators have instead relied on “experience…eminence…or habit-based” (p. 113) practices.  As a result of this reliance educators have missed an opportunity to base our profession on a solid empirical foundation and teaching has suffered in comparison to other professions by not establishing a solid empirical foundation for practice or decision making  (Hempenstall, 2017).  Other educators argue that what matters in education “crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable” (Biesta, 2007, p.5) and that practitioners actually have limited opportunity to make judgments in ways that recognize their own contexts saying that the “focus on ‘what works’ makes it difficult if not impossible to ask questions of what it should work for and who should have a say in determining the latter” (p. 5).  This debate places the scientific and democratic perspectives on education at odds with each other and thus who controls educational practice and research (Biesta, 2007).  Because of this dilemma, uncertainty exists about the goals and the means of education and questions prevail about what the appropriate evidence for making decisions actually is. 

According to a study by Hart (2018) decision making is a “choice between alternatives” and is a skill that is more complex for senior executives because these are not “programmed decisions” but require creativity beyond established policy and procedures (p. 15).  The traditional approach using “rational analysis” is a good starting place, but the role played by intuition based on belief and/or experience is also recognized.  How to appropriately blend the rational and intuitive is a central question and research into the role played by each is presented as well as discussion of the influence of situational context on how decisions are reached. Thirteen Superintendents interviewed for this study identified three common factors affecting their decisions: first, the strongly-held belief in putting student need and well-being as the top priority; the response of stakeholders and the community response to decisions and knowing when to consult;   and, the influence of advice from other district leaders and fellow superintendents on the final decision (Hart, 2018).  Two themes also surfaced that a rational process was more likely to occur if time was not a factor; and that the blended approach included a rational process to identify issues and analyze a problem, but the final decision was made often as a result of intuition and the “intuitive moment” (p. 21).  Recommendations for both new and experienced district leaders were that: a rational model is a good starting point for decision making; understanding and skill is required for how to facilitate and involve others in meaningful consultation; allowing sufficient decision-making time when involving others is necessary; recognizing the situational nature of dilemmas and that now two situations are completely alike; and, taking the time to develop effective internal and external networks of advisors before decisions are made (Hart, 2018).

Three themes arise for me through these articles which form some interesting questions for future study. First, what constitutes evidence and what do we call evidence? Usually, we equate evidence with test scores or assessment results, but are those the only sources of evidence which can be included in educational decision making? Second, what is the appropriate role for experience and intuition to play in decision making under uncertainty? It is interesting that Hart identifies that rational processes are used at the start of decision making processes, but that intuition is often used in making the decision itself. Is that the real way that decisions are made? Finally, how and when should others be involved in decision making processes? Learning how to meaningfully consult with others in decisions is a key skill for leaders as the days of the decision maker sitting in a room alone making the decision are well past and the public and organizational members expect to be involved in decisions being made. What are the practices to involve others which are most helpful in making effective decisions?

There is much more reading to do and work to be done in order to be able to answer these (and many other) questions so I’d better get at it. For now, I am of the mind that finding the appropriate blend of evidence and judgment is the way forward but we will see what evidence I can find for supporting that conclusion. Have a great weekend and see you next time in This Week in Uncertainty.

References

Biesta, G. (2007). Why “What Works” won’t work: Evidence based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research. Educational Theory, 57(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-5446.2006.00241.x

Cooper, A., & Levin, B. (2013). Research Use by Leaders in Canadian School Districts. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 8(7), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.22230/ijepl.2013v8n7a449

Hart, W. (2018). Is it rational or intuitive? Factors and processes affecting school superintendents’ decisions when facing professional dilemmas. Educational Leadership Administration: Teaching and Program Development. 29(1)14-25.

Hempenstall, K. (2014). What works? Evidence-based practice in education is complex. Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties, 19(2), 113–127. https://doi.org/10.1080/19404158.2014.921631

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