Decisions: The Currency of Educational Action

Choices… decisions… education. Three simple words deeply embedded within my world. For years I have been amazed while reflecting on the cascade of decisions a teacher makes in even one class period with a typical group of 20 or so students. I felt compelled to ponder this subject a bit more after reading Dr. Dial’s recent blog post “Making choices through an educational lens.

united states currency eye

Teacher Decisions

The number of seemingly-small choices and decisions a teacher makes -in planning and on the fly- would melt the minds of many. I would further suggest that the more a teacher transforms the classroom environment toward one that features increased student leadership and freedom, the more complex the task becomes. A reasonably student-centered classroom (even in the world of NCLB’s accountability) is a far more complex beast than it seems. The teacher’s role in a traditional classroom might be looked at as the driver of a bus with holes in the floorboards. Though individual students might shift seats every now and again, they are all going to arrive at the same place upon completion of the trip… provided they don’t slip through a hole along the way. That’s a tough mission for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the complexity of a more student-centered classroom.

In contrast, this elusive world requires in-depth discussion about what students already know prior to the introduction of new learning. It requires being attuned to not only the strengths and needs of the class… but of each individual student. It requires not only knowing but honoring the differing modes of communications preferred by each student. Mind you, I’m not necessarily speaking of “learning styles” here, but of communication preferences. I’m not going to get caught up in the “learning styles” debate in this post. In our world, we openly speak of preferences, allow students to work within those often… and then stretch everyone toward those modes that are outside of their preferences. Do we need to push some of our group toward more open, digital modes of sharing? Yes. However, this is not the primary goal of our time together. Our goal is deep learning that transfers beyond the classroom into real life.


That said, with a traditional classroom model, the volume of decisions is likely to be almost an order of magnitude lower. It’s no small number for sure… but compared to what goes on in the mind of an educator leading students through a workshop, or inquiry-based model of instruction… I just don’t think it compares. The more a teacher moves toward individually shepherding their students through a course of study- the more the classroom complexity raises.

In my opinion, the currency of these decisions is somewhat of a standard. Allow me to feebly attempt an explanation. What classroom teachers rarely get to see is the view from beside an admin on even a typical day. I’m betting even building admins rarely get to view the vista of a district admin. All three make crucial decisions, and yet, I would bet at times each thinks their perspective is the perspective. I might implore Dan Meyer to step in to propose an equation governing these interactions. I appreciate your creativity as a math teacher- what say ye, Dan? I know, it’s a tall order.

Here’s the deal: speaking from where I now sit, high school classroom teachers make decisions (of the whole-class kind) that impact anywhere from 20 to 180 students each. Building principals then make decisions affecting the entire student body that affect between 800 and 1700 students each. The district admin, in turn, makes decisions that impact the lives of thousands of students as well as their teachers. In the currency of these decisions, teachers are working with perhaps thousands of precious pennies each day, while the boss tosses dollars and the bosses of bosses place hundreds on any given choice.

I would suggest that none of these positions choose the next step lightly. I would assert that classroom teachers have precious little time and must make calls on a dime every time they turn around- if not more. On the other end of the spectrum, district admins likely get a bit more time to arrive at most decisions (without 20 kids ready to bounce down the hallway at the end of the period a mere five minutes from now) and yet many of these calls are made by filtering these same decisions through two layers of professionals at best. And don’t forget, any call here has reverberations throughout the entire system. The way I see it, the most crucial decision to make is the one sitting before you at any given moment, regardless of your position.

nervous system

Systemic action

Imagine, if you will, a school system as a human nervous system. Teachers sit at the fingers of the system. They man the digits that touch student lives at the most immediate of levels. District admins might then sit somewhere within the brain, making calls that influence the entire organism. Building principals would naturally then sit at some point in between, with ramifications that move an entire arm of the beast. This is the toughest for me. With the “fingers” of 50 to 100 teachers below them, each acting to move student learning forward… and district admins acting from the brain level above to direct the organization, it might be said that they make moves to push appendages in the right direction. This is where I may need some help with the metaphor. In a system not hitting on all cylinders, this might be the toughest seat in which to sit.

And yet, with a system that works, each might be informed from student action upward to create an organization (organism) that is efficacious in step and efficient in scope. Might I make the suggestion to actually sketch your local system as a nervous system? See what that does for you and yours. Do the signals usually come in from the best direction to move student learning? Furthermore, which is the best direction? In a living being, these electrochemical signals move in both directions for the ultimate well-being of the organism. Do they do so efficiently in your world?

Which is more crucial: nimble fingers or a receptive brain? I would suggest that in a living being, the answer is neither. If nothing else, 2010 is high time for honesty. Is this true for your school system? We should all strive, for the sake of our children, to be an effective and smart decision-making organism. If not, then wherein lies the disconnect?


*united states currency eye by Kevin Dean on Flickr.
*pedals by madmolecule on Flickr.
*Bartolomeo Eustachi: Peripheral Nervous System c. 1722 from brain blogger on Flickr.

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at


  1. Thanks for the mention, Sean. Your points are well taken. When I wrote my post, I was moved by the environment in which I was living at the time. As someone who sits at the district level, it is often to be faced with decisions that seem simple at the surface, but as you stated it above, does “impact the lives of thousands of students as well as…teachers.” Whether the impact comes at the time of the decision or in a more delayed fashion is irrelevant. Choices we make as leaders will make an impact of some sort. It is not a matter of if, but when. This is why my style of decision-making (most of the time) is to take my time and run my decision through a few filters before making it a final one.

    With this being said, I want to point out something you touched on. You talked about how building leaders often get caught in the middle between what their staffs want them to do and what their district administrative team wants them to do. This is indeed a tough spot to be, but thoughtful, level-headed, and focused building administrators know how to juggle both entities and do what is in the best interests of their students (which should be everyone’s overall goal).

    Again, great post. My favorite line by far is this one:

    “The way I see it, the most crucial decision to make is the one sitting before you at any given moment, regardless of your position.”

    • Isn’t it interesting to look back at past decisions that seemed small… but ended up carrying a huge impact? It’s funny, I just used to download a .pdf archive of all of the Twitter updates I have sent out. I also clicked a second tab to download the tweets of others that I have “favorited.” Looking back, it is funny to see how certain things I found… shared with others… saved for later… ultimately ended up becoming rather interesting learning resources for different people for different reasons.

      And yet again, several of those things that I look back and reminisce about seemed huge to me at the time… and ended up having little to no impact on anything that I could see. These certainly aren’t “decisions” or “choices,” per se, but I’d say there is some overlap.

      And yes- I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about savvy admins at the building level. It’s interesting to me to continue to think about the currency of these decisions about learning and the management of it. Volume of decisions… impact of decisions. I’ve been thinking about it since then.

  2. Hi Sean,

    Another great blog entry, so interesting! I love hearing your analogies. Hey, is it ok if I add one in?

    How about digestive systems, with learning as food?
    Parents provide the basic life-sustenance for children on an ongoing basis; teachers supplement, vary, and enrich the diets, given the students’ states of being.

    Students work to absorb the nutrients that provide energy as they explore their environments for more learning-nutritious ingredients. They take in what they can absorb and, uh, get rid of the rest. Over time and with concerted practice, students take over as their own personal nutrition-managers.

    In this analogy, teachers are the cooks at school. They create delicious, nutritious, suitably-varied learning meals.

    I’d see administrators as the people who watch over the kitchen, making sure it’s well-supplied and functional.

    Sorry for an analogy that’s only half-baked;-) but this is sure fun. I think I will try, as you suggest, to make diagrams of decision-flow, and I’ll do it with two different schemas: the nervous and the digestive system. Hey, this would be really fun to share in a staff meeting… Can you imagine?

    • Half-baked perhaps. 😉 But really, it might be almost too accurate of an analogy. One of the things it made me think of… is that no matter how careful some of us are with nutrition, there are always those among us who can pay little to no attention to the parameters of what is generally accepted to be “good approaches to nutrition” and still be striking physical specimens who live long, productive lives.

      Reminds me of those few disaffected, troubled kids that we never quite reach in “school” who scrape by somehow beyond grade twelve and then later emerge… as a vibrant, productive, and likable people… almost in spite of our attempts.

      For all we know about things that breathe, eat, and poop… we still know so very little. I guess that’s exciting to me.


  3. Ah, the nervous system–you throw in quite a bit of the musculoskeletal system (William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things” comes to mind), but I’m going to stick to the nervous system for the moment.

    Afferent pathways go to the brain, efferent from (easy enough to remember if you think of the roots “a-, ad-“, into or towards, and “e-, ex” , out or away).

    If the brain ignores its afferent pathways, then all the nervous energy it sends down to the muscles will result in pointless, unnecessary motion–about as useful as having a seizure.

    You might place the principals at the spinal ganglion–they respond to signals before the brain even realizes what happens. It’s why you manage to jerk your hand away from a hot stove even before you feel the burn. (It’s what principals often do–they handle the hotspots as they happen.)

    “No ideas but in things”–a bad brain destroys the system by the results it creates when it signals the muscles to act a certain way. A bad brain thinks it knows better than its fingers.

    OTOH, bad fingers can prove frustrating to a good brain.

    If the brain is responding effectively to its afferent signals, the fingers will merrily work their magic. If the fingers are doing their work without cortical input (I could stretch things here and drag in the “muscle memory” of the cerebellum, but I’ve confused things enough), then the brain’s best move is to keep doing what it’s doing and avoid getting all fancy, even if getting fancy leads to promotions and book tours.

    Happy New Year!

    • I was happy to see WCW pop in your blog again the other day. One of my favorites, (a rather light piece compared to others) is this one that sits on a digital sticky note on my laptop:

      This Is Just to Say
      by William Carlos Williams

      I have eaten
      the plums
      that were in
      the icebox

      and which
      you were probably
      for breakfast

      Forgive me
      they were delicious
      so sweet
      and so cold

      I think I realize now that I have to pepper my virtual world with reminders that a real planet exists beyond the screen. 😉

      Your response here is juuuust what I was looking for. I love being associated with smart people who can help to refine my future thinking. Nicely done. I think your setup here does a nice treatment of building-level leaders. It makes too much sense really. Scary.

      Is this your way of telling me you have a book about to drop, or that you’ve been promoted to chief shepherd of the clams?

      Oh, and… Happy New Year to you, kind Sir.

  4. “Building principals would naturally then sit at some point in between, with ramifications that move an entire arm of the beast.”

    I find the day to day facilitation of being the “point in between” to be a place where you sometimes have the luxury of time in decision-making but more often than not have the challenge of making decisions – a myriad of them – quickly and while viewing many perspectives.

    I, for one, do not spend off the pennies in the hands of the teachers lightly, nor do I wield my dollars with wild abandon. I often times find my decisions are because, like any tight budget, I must prioritize where the monies are allocated or spent in hopes the pay off is right down the road. With experience, the decisions on where to allocate the cache brings a greater yield.

    In respect to the nervous system, I appreciate Doyle’s perspective very much. We do have to react often times before the brain ever notices the pain or possible damage. But I think the key here is not to get ourselves into situations where those types of reactions are common place. And so, we walk day to day always remembering that our decisions, conversations, ideas can have impacting repercussions.

    It’s funny though. People call you the boss, but really…we work for the pennies.

    • Boss lady…

      I’m a bit surprised that the example off the top of your head deals with finance. That’s one I didn’t see coming.

      I too liked Doyle’s CNS reminders. Pretty solid stuff. I like using models like that to help steer my understanding of complex systems. What works, what fits, what doesn’t? Fun.

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