Exploring the Architecture of Decision Making

Changing behaviour for the better has always been an aspect of what good schools do. Yet how do we persuade children to make the right choices, at the right time, in the right way and of their own volition? How do we define what those choices are? How can we provide children with the capacity and self-efficacy to do this for themselves without prescribing every possible life scenario in precise detail, or defining meticulously what a “good” decision is? How, in a nut-shell, can we usher children through a process of education to a level of autonomy in which they have all the skills and strengths of character to make a success of their adult lives?

Schools who change patterns of poor behaviour by imposing strict disciplinarian regimes or by punishing slight infractions can stamp out problematic patterns of unwanted behaviour in an instant very effectively. Yet, schools that work solely this way can never be anything other than reactive and ‘quick fix’ – as the saying goes, sanctions may ‘stop the rot’ but long term behaviour change requires something much more complex – we need to change a child’s underlying belief and value structure to always make the right choices when no one is watching. Positive behavioural change is therefore one of the most important challenges facing every school, not just schools of character.

On a fundamental level, character education is about changing mind-sets and facilitating positive proactive behaviours: a student may begin apathetic or lazy and, through a process, become more engaged and hard-working; they might begin with debilitating self-confidence and gradually become a poised and self-assured public speaker, capable of standing on their own two feet in the world outside the school gates. The principle behind these transformations is very simple: if we naturally become the things that we do, it follows that we must have made the right choices about our behaviour and allowed that to feed back into our mind-set – our beliefs, values, thoughts & words – to make it part of an intentional, rational and action centred process. And just like Aristotle had been proselytising that “excellence is an art won by training and habituation,” that “we do not act rightly because we have virtue, but we have virtue because we have acted rightly” as far back as the third century BC, the decisions we make, often have their genesis from the perceived value of taking an intended action or route.

The Theory of Planned Behaviour 

Accepting the way the brain works on impulse alongside its capacity for rational thought, how could we utilise an approach that enables us to burrow down to the roots of behaviour, the building blocks of why we do the things we do. We have already seen in a previous post how the OODA Loop was used as a strategic decision making tool by the military, so what would happen if you could intentionally shape the information a person receives and the methods he or she applies when orienting upon it prior to their ‘action’ phase?

Perhaps the most powerful piece of cognitive research that has tried to define how people’s actions can be changed for the better was undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Icek Ajzen, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour was to become a landmark text in the field of social cognition, utilised in many varying fields, with its central conceit being especially influential in healthcare, where it was tailored as a form of cognitive behavioural therapy, better engaging patients in dieting, exercise and smoking cessation through a deliberate form of habit programming or re-programming.

The theory posits that humans behave rationally when they are making decisions in situations with which they are familiar. In other words – we behave according to our principles and values in situations that have become habits for us in the past. According to Ajzen, when we ‘intend’ to do something, we are more likely to carry out that behaviour than if we left it to random chance and that the architecture of our intentional behaviours, through our choices and decisions, is shaped by three things:

  • firstly, our attitude, positive or negative, toward the behaviour we are about to perpetrate;
  • secondly, the extent of social pressures and norms we feel to either engage or not engage with a certain behaviour; and,
  • lastly, our sense of self-efficacy or how much we feel in control of whatever our behaviour will be.

At its simplest, the theory provides a framework to change people’s habits – to move people’s automatic and engrained intentions into their consciousness and as a result, enable them to make more rational based decisions, which in turn and through training, could lead to more positive behaviours and outcomes.

By focusing upon these three ‘awareness’ factors, all underpinned by latent beliefs & values, together provides a framework to act upon, reinforce, even change the intentions of ourselves or others at the juncture point of our choices and decisions, which then directly dictates the actions we undertake, for the better or equally, for the worse.

Let’s take an example common in every classroom – the failure of a student to hand in homework either on time or to a good standard. How many of us immediately rush to the conclusion that the student in question is simply disorganised or lazy and issue a sanction immediately to solve the problem and ‘to stop the rot’? According to Ajzen’s reasoning, this kind of punitive reaction ends up creating the right behaviour for the wrong reasons; it may change the outcome – or the behaviour of the student – but fails to change the intention behind the behaviour, nor the attitudes, latent beliefs and other antecedents that had propagated it in the first place.

However, by focusing on the tenets of the TPB, it allows us to first question the student’s beliefs about how they perceive the importance of homework and producing quality work – this is the critical first and most important stage –if they don’t believe in, or equally their perceptions mean that they cannot see a different, better way (more on perceptions in this post) of completing the task, you will not change their habits and behaviours in the long term through punitive sanctions. Instead, start by asking these types of of questions:

  • Was their attitude to this particular task positive and if not, why not?
  • Did their friendship group act in the same way? How supportive and involved are their parents in this?
  • Do the social norms and expectations of the classroom/home signal that it is okay not to give 100%? If not, what action could be taken?
  • Were they actually confident in the first place of completing the task to a good standard? If not, what action could be taken?

The simplicity of the model (and accepting the debate around the brain’s chemistry and the seeming battle between impulse and rational behaviour in all human lives) provides a framework in which to nestle a version of what character education is – one founded upon educating beliefs, values and mindsets through abstract reflection, repetitive practice, positive habit formation and the unleashing of personal, proactive leadership.

By shaping attitudes, creating strong social norms and instilling perceived control in students’ actions, schools can shape/re-shape an ‘intention’ to act in a student. Shaping attitudes through educating on values, students can know what the good thing is through reflective dialogue; equipping students with the right social norms, they can see and feel what the good thing is through repetitive practice and strong role modelling; and, empowering with the appropriate levels of perceived control, they can experience what the good thing is autonomously.

Good intentions are never enough

Here is the catch. Many of students ‘intend’ to do the right thing – something which we know is positive, supported by family and friends, and a behaviour which, on most occasions, they have control over and could carry out habitually. And yet they don’t always do it. Anyone who has entertained a new diet or exercise regime will recognise this in themselves: few of these ever materialise into a long-standing habit; rather they are picked up and put down, seemingly whenever the initial surge of enthusiasm for the change begins to wane. Here, we would argue that this is because we have failed to ‘internalise’ the behaviour, failed to make it a part of our true selves. Rather than turning it into a habit that we perpetuate because it brings us inherent pleasure or joy, we perform the behaviour for an external or extrinsic reason: because, perhaps, we are being coerced into it, whether that is by those around us or the nagging voice in our own heads that tells us this is something we should do, whether we truly want it or not. The same is true for our students. Is positive behaviour and good decision making only part of conforming to expectations whilst in school, or is it part of their inner self, aligned to their beliefs, values and actions which they carry out habitually in and out of school.

Why we do the things we do sits at the heart of The Power of Character. The framework underpinning the Theory of Planned Behaviour might help us shape what behaviours we choose and the architecture connecting the decision making process, but the why is a different, much more nuanced beast. The ‘why’ is important because, unless new behaviours become habits for life, we will never ENGRAVE them on our inner selves – and engraving is the final step of the 6 ‘E’ programme: not only ‘entrusting’ that the habit and consistent ways of behaving and making decisions go on to be used outside of the school building but have been ‘engraved’ so deep that they enable our students to live a more flourishing life.

Only by understanding the underlying tenets of our intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and wider motivational climate can we determine whether these behaviours will ever be carried out habitually and over the longer term. For this, we need to explore the work of one the most prescient thinkers in this field for our time – Edward L. Deci and his colleague Richard Ryan. Together they are the authors of Self-Determination Theory, a body of research that seeks to explain the very things that make us tick, and one that has been instrumental in our Aristotelian approach to create ‘the good society’ at King’s Leadership Academy. This will be discussed in Part 2.

Thanks for reading.

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