DECISION MAKING AS CURRICULUM CONTENT
Welcome to Ohio Sea Grant's education project for development of electronic curricula for decision making using Great Lakes data. The development process applied in the project has been tested over 30 years and has resulted in many collections of curriculum activities for Great Lakes education. Directors of this project were Rosanne W. Fortner and Joseph L. Arvai, who were faculty of the School of Natural Resources, The Ohio State University.
Many contemporary examples of K-12 and informal education curricula for environmental issues focus almost exclusively on scientific information: Providing factual information about environmental issues in understandable terms and within a socially appropriate setting. Students in middle school, for example, learn about the science behind fossil fuel consumption and its links to global warming. In another example, participants in informal education efforts situated in National, State, and Municipal parks as well as local science centers receive information about environmental issues such as the harvesting of trees for use in paper products. Yet, despite an increased level scientific of scientific literacy that comes with these formal and informal education programs, we routinely see a disparity between knowledge and action when it comes to environmental issues. For example, sales of high fuel consumption sport utility vehicles continue to rise, and Americans recycle less than 25% and compost less than 5% of their waste.
We believe that one reason behind the disparity between scientific knowledge about environmental issues is that many formal and informal environmental education efforts begin and end with science. Very few of them incorporate lessons that encourage critical thinking outside the "black box" (Latour, 1987) of science. Critical thinking in this post-science context is concerned with the form and content of information but also its limitations, how it is used, and the relation of information to an individuals or society's values. Thus, critical thinking about environmental issues involves the ability to combine factual and values information and, where appropriate, to structure a situation as a decision problem and recognize that an opportunity exists to choose among alternative actions (Gregory, 1991).
Structuring environmental issues as decision problems is not meant to suggest that K-12 students and participants in informal education programs require training in sophisticated subject areas related to the decision sciences. The application of such complicated tools to most everyday de-cisions is unlikely to be either necessary or appropriate. Instead, imparting critical thinking skills so as to encourage improved decision making involves fostering the ability on the part of the student or participant to examine the available scientific evidence and go beyond its apparent or immediate implications by virtue of adapting a questioning perspective: Is there another side to the story? What does that experience, possibility, or result have to do with me? Am I accounting for the big picture? Are there inconsistencies in the information I am given (Gregory, 1991)?
It goes without saying that linking decision making skills to environmental issues is a priority because of the significance of environmental issues facing school-aged children and participants in informal education efforts. Unfortunately, not nearly enough is known to offer firm recommendations guaranteed to students and participants critical thinking skills. However, several recent research efforts and publications (e.g., Arvai et al., 2001; Gregory et al., 2001; Hammond et al., 1998; Keeney, 1992) provide a variety of guiding principles that have been shown to result in considerable improvements in peoples decision making skills after receiving scientific information about environmental issues. Many of these guiding principles will be added to formal and informal environmental education curricula in the form of a few relatively simple, and perhaps even engaging, concepts. For example, we propose to include as part of formal and informal education curricula lessons that teach students and participants three basic decision making skills; (1) defining a decision perspective, (2) making choices under conditions scientific uncertainty, and (3) thinking about the consequences of action and inaction.
Defining a Decision Perspective. Any curriculum that attempts to improve peoples decision-making capabilities needs to begin by recognizing the personal empowerment that comes from simply realizing that a choice can be made and actively defining a decision perspective (Gregory, 1991). This requires that people be taught to distinguish between modes of "decision thinking" and "automatic thinking" (Dawes, 1988). Decision thinking involves
Automatic thinking, in contrast, occurs in situations where repetition encourages decision making based on previously learned responses (e.g., driving a car because everyone else does). Including the development of skills for defining a decision perspective as part of a formal or informal curriculum is important because many people employ automatic thinking in cases where they would be better served by decision thinking. For example, many of the poor choices that are made by children and adults are made because alternatives were not considered or because the criteria used to select between options omitted something later recognized as important.
Making Choices under Uncertainty. Another important element of decision making in the context of environmental issues is the ability to deal constructively with uncertainty. Getting people to participate in simple exercises that provide the opportunity to validate expressed degrees of certainty can develop a better understanding of such important concepts as anchoring certain pieces of information and overconfidence based on an analysis of trends in data. Also, people need to learn to be comfortable with the presence of uncertainty and to recognize that being uncertain is neither good nor bad in and of itself (Gregory, 1991). Recognizing that scientific uncertainty exists can also encourage people to go beyond the information that is provided to them, thereby fostering self-directed learning. Similarly, acknowledging that scientific uncertainty exists can empower people to overcome the tendency to make low quality choices because they have been "victimized" by a biased framing of information: Many people tend only to take account of the information that is readily at hand, and unless they are taught to question the information base and think in terms of looking for what isn't there, they can easily be persuaded to make poor choices.
Thinking about Consequences. All decisions involve tradeoffs of consequences. People are interested in making choices and taking actions because they seek desired consequences, but to understand the full range of these consequences they must be able to think critically in terms of tradeoffs. Yet, tradeoff avoidance is a common feature of many decisions that people make. When tradeoffs are avoided, people often end up selecting alternatives that only partially address their objectives because they fail to evaluate alternatives across conflicting dimensions of value (Bohneblust and Slovic, 1998). In other words, teaching people that tradeoffs are important can help them to overcome the well-documented natural tendency to emphasize single objectives when addressing difficult choices (March, 1978).
References Cited for
Arvai, J.L., R. Gregory, and T.L. McDaniels. 2001. Testing a structured decision approach: Value focused thinking for deliberative risk communication. Risk Analysis 21(6), 1065-1076
Bohneblust, H. and P. Slovic. 1998. Integrating technical analysis and public values in risk-based decision making. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, 59: 151-159.
Dawes, R. 1988. Rational Choice in an Uncertain World. Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich. New York, NY.
Gregory, R. 1991. Critical thinking for environmental health risk education. Health Education Quarterly, 18: 273-284.
Gregory, R., J. Arvai and T. McDaniels. 2001. Value-focused thinking for environmental risk consultations. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 9, 249-275.
Hammond, J., R. Keeney, and H. Raiffa. 1999. Smart Choices : A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Keeney, R.L. 1992. Value Focused Thinking. A Path to Creative Decision Making. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
March, J. 1978. Bounded rationality, ambiguity, and the rationality of choice. Bell Journal of Economics, 9: 587-608.
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