Graphic Representations as Tools for Decision Making

By Howard, Judith | Social Education, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Graphic Representations as Tools for Decision Making


Howard, Judith, Social Education


EFFECTIVE DECISION MAKING is so integral to the social studies that the NCSS Standards place it within their definition of the field: "The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good ..."(1) The NCSS Task Force on Scope and Sequence also recognized the importance of making informed decisions, and identified the ability of students to evaluate and present information for better decision making as one of its essential skills.(2)

Making good decisions is not easy. Citizens in a democratic society are faced with hard choices, frequently characterized by a conflict among values. In helping students learn to make decisions, the task of social studies teachers is not to provide answers, but to offer an approach that helps students to recognize the role of values in decision making, to evaluate alternative courses of action, and to predict consequences for each alternative. A useful list of decision-making skills based on those identified by NCSS, the National Center for History in the Schools, and the Geography Education Standards Project, was outlined by Kendall and Marzano (see Table 1).(3)

Table 1: List of Decision Making Skills

* Identify situations in which a decision is requited

* Recognize values implicit in the situation

* Identify alternative courses of action

* Secure factual information pertinent to evaluating alternatives

* Identify criteria for making a selection among alternatives

* Predict possible consequences of each alternative

* Make decisions based on the data obtained and the criteria identified

* Take action to implement the decision

* Evaluate decision in terms of outcomes

The visual presentation of information is also a strong tradition in the social studies, which draws heavily on the use of maps, globes, charts, and tables. Another form of visual presentation, the graphic organizer, has received attention recently as an effective way to help students understand content.(4) Graphic organizers seem to be especially helpful to remedial students and students with learning disabilities.(5) Though generally used as a way to help students increase their reading and writing skills through understanding text structure, graphic representations are also being promoted as thinking tools.(6) Based on the theory of mental models, they outline the fundamental components of a line of reasoning, stripping them of nonessential detail, and allowing students to note relationships and consider alternative possibilities. Graphic representations can clarify relationships among components in a way that verbal representations cannot, by allowing these relationships to be seen--literally. As Jones, Pierce, and Hunter conclude, graphic organizers are "fundamental to skilled thinking because they provide information and opportunities for analysis that reading alone and linear outlining cannot."(7)

This article looks at three forms of graphic representations that I have found particularly useful in guiding students through the decision making process: the "force field," which helps students recognize the role of values in decision making; the "decision tree," which helps students formulate the pros and cons of alternative decisions; and the "decision making grid," which encourages students to identify criteria and evaluate alternatives.

The Force Field

The force field is a visual aid that helps students organize information relevant to a decision by identifying the values affecting it. As used in social studies units in the Problem-Based Learning in the Social Sciences (P-BLiSS) Project, it presents students with an authentic historical problem and leads them to the point of making a decision about it.(8) By requiring students to rate the strength of personal values influencing a decision, the force field creates a visual depiction of these opposing values. …

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