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Good Choices

The correct words to use? The right time to act? What to send? Who to talk to, vote for, or make arrangements with? Whether we are thinking about our own actions, the activities we choose for our children, or the collective acts we take part in, we are regularly called on to make individual and group decisions that affect us, those around us and our planet. We make complex decisions every day, but in a dynamic world, with information streamed from multiple sources, many of which are designed to influence our choices, making the right decision can often be a challenge.brain feelings

During this week, in our Reception class, we have been talking about the brakhah (blessing) '...ha'mechin mitz'adei gaver' we recite in the morning. The blessing loosely translates as 'thank you for guiding us to make choices', and our discussions have been about how we make good decisions. The children shared some of the decisions they are thinking about, from their playtime friendship choices to family matters, and we discussed strategies they could use to help them. One of the aims in our School Development Plan, the strategic document we write each year to guide our work at Alma, is to help children 'develop good decision-making'. It is a great aim, and something I think is essential for children's development, but it is not something that is simple to achieve. Decision making, in primary school talk, is a tricky business.

We often think as adults that we are rational and logical thinkers, however as Professor Daniel Kahneman shows, our belief that we are making carefully considered decisions, is often profoundly mistaken. In his fascinating book, 'Thinking Fast and Slow' Kahneman demonstrates that our minds are strongly influenced by irrelevant things on quite a regular basis. He describes an experiment where students watched a wheel of fortune spin. The students had to note down then number selected and were then asked to guess what percentage of African nations there are in the United Nations. The wheel was fixed to either stop at 10 or 65 and the students, who should have ignored the irrelevant number spun on the wheel, were instead deeply affected by the number they saw and regularly made guesses akin to the number they had spun. By relating the results of a wide variety of psychological tests like this, Kahneman establishes that our thinking is a great deal more complicated than we think it is. When we stay inside our heads our minds are limited by a whole range of factors we don't really take account of. Most of us are far more influenced by irrelevant information or by the sounds, sights and smells around us than we would like to admit.

So does this mean that teaching children to make good decisions is inevitably flawed? I don't think so: Gandhi taught that 'You have to do the right thing ... You may never know what results come from your action, but if you do nothing, there will be no result.' Ignoring the problem doesn't help and whilst we may not be sure of always doing the right thing, we can overcome some of our limitations simply by challenging our own thinking, either through internal or external dialogue. By discussing our problems with others, evaluating our options, listing the pros and cons, working out the consequences of actions, or, for some, talking to God, we are able to rise above our tendency to make snap judgements.

We are all guilty of assuming that children will absorb our positive behaviours simply by being around us, but this is rarely true. If we want children to develop the ability to make considered choices and decisions then we need to model this behaviour for them. We need to talk to them about difficult choices we are faced with (assuming they are appropriate for young, growing minds) and we need to clearly explain what we are doing to make our decisions. That way we can help them to develop their own ways of making decisions which overcome our natural limitations and help our children to make the best of their opportunities.

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