From the Principal – 22 February 2018

Last year we spent some time as a learning community reflecting on the importance of common vocabulary. The aim was to emphasise that good problem solving can often be hampered by the fact that two groups think they are talking about the same thing, but often they are not. This causes misunderstanding, frustration and sometimes anger.

In summary:  It is worth taking the time to explore and explain what we mean when we say a word or a phrase. Do we all understand a particular word to mean the same thing?

This year, our teachers and educational support staff are going to take the next step and spend some time looking and the ‘language and vocabulary’ of our thinking.

Holiday work, alongside my dreaded but wonderful PhD work, took a random detour into the writings of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for economics in 2002 and is known in lay circles for his work on making decisions as captured in his book “Thinking fast and thinking slow”. This book was lent to me when I started here last year. The second book I fell into was “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds,” by Michael Lewis (who also wrote ‘The Big Short’).

So – how do we make decisions?

Individual Decision Making

Kahneman and Amos Tversky worked on how to judge an intuitive sense of reliability for statistics/data. They were very different, but both recognised that their thinking was stronger when they worked together than apart.

“On a good day, they would write a paragraph or two. Everything was produced jointly; they did not really know where one’s thought ended and the other’s began. Graduate students “now wondered how two so radically different personalities could find common ground, much less become soul mates,” Lewis writes. One reason was that “Danny was always sure he was wrong. Amos was always sure he was right.”

There were two distinct themes: judgment and decision-making. Judgment is about estimating (or guessing) magnitudes and probabilities. How likely is it that a billionaire businessman from New York with no experience in government gets elected President? Decision-making is about how we choose a way forward, especially when there is uncertainty (meaning almost all the time). What should we do now?

They identified two types of thinking:

  • Fast thinking: based on heuristics (rule of thumb) and (expert) intuition to produce ‘gut’ reactions. An automatic and quick process.
  • Slow thinking: this requires effort, time, analyses of biases and attention. This is a slower and more thorough process.

The challenge for many of us is that we often default to ‘fast thinking’ – it is easier and less time consuming after all.

Recognising, however, that a situation requires ‘slow thinking’ is indeed a challenge in itself.

As an aside, as we age, I suspect fast thinking becomes even more prevalent, as we equate our experience with true expertise and therefore rely on expert intuition.

This, in turn leads to a further dilemma for all of us: recognising the challenges to quality thinking

  • Are there errors in the machinery of our cognition (thinking)?
  • Has our thinking been corrupted (influenced) by emotion, and if so, how?

Ironically, such challenges are only recognized if we slow down and deliberately allocate a problem or dilemma to slow thinking!

Recognising that we are making gut decisions or recognizing that we are making a decision because we ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ the person or aspect of an idea, forms part of the quality thinking that can occur in an organization.

Organisational decision-making

When faced with a very difficult decision, we often choose to answer the wrong question: should we employ person A or B becomes – who do I like better – person A or B?

Organisations often make system errors – leadership may be prone to ‘Fast Thinking’. An identified factor in all this, should we have any position of leadership, is how others judge our decisions – particularly the gossips and ‘water cooler critics’.

This is where we all need each other.

When making a difficult decision we need our critics and ‘water cooler gossip’ to be exact in the vocabulary and language used, to recognize when fast or slow thinking is being used by themselves or by leadership and to call it for what it is.

This is what will lead to better decision making.

I believe we are all allowed to make mistakes. I encourage us all to grapple with the big questions and explore responses. I encourage informed gossip and water cooler conversations. I ask us to think about our own thinking and how we make our decisions. This is particularly difficult in the frenetic and fast-paced life of a school or a family and requires conscious effort on our part.

I might add that we expect nothing less of our young people – we expect them to use the vocabulary and language of thier subjects and to slow down and be explicit in the representations of their thinking.

Leads me to the final point:  A good educator needs the to know the vocabulary and language of education (as well as their subject area). A deeper understanding requires a richer vocabulary than is available in everyday language; otherwise we support those who believe ‘anyone can teach’. I would add to that, that we also need to pay attention to the thinking processes behind the decision-making processes we use.

Our aim this year is to increase ability to identify and understand errors in judgement of others and ourselves through the use of precise language and quality thinking.

To this end, the community is delighted to welcome Ms Linda Shardlow whose main focus is on the Teachers and Educational Support Staff. Her role will be to assist us all to own our own learning with the expectation that the educational knowledge, vocabulary and language that we use to approach the questions we face in every classroom and office are as sophisticated and effective as possible. All teachers should all be able to discuss effectively our models of teaching, our strategies for identifying when our students are learning (or not), how our students are learning and what we will do next to progress their learning.

It is going to be an exciting year focusing on teaching and learning!

All parents are invited to the inaugural Unicorn Series: ‘What Makes a Good Teacher?, hosted by The SMS and BGS Centre for Excellence in Learning at Teaching. It will be held at 6.30pm on Monday March 5 in the Lecture Theatre at St Margaret’s Campus. This event is co-badged with the Australian College of Educators.  Register your attendance at

Kahneman, D., ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’ Penguin Books, Melbourne 2011

Ms Annette Rome