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How to Help Teenagers Make Big Decisions Better

Educational experts across the spectrum bemoan the state of U.S. high schools, yet no one can agree on how to make schools more effective. Many fixes have been proposed, and many solutions have been tried, with varying success. But what if there were a way to improve students’ learning that didn’t cost trillions of dollars, could be easily implemented in schools in all 50 states, could be applied across all disciplines, and wouldn’t become outdated over time? Students study math, science and English in high school, but they aren’t taught an important skill that overlays all learning: decision-making.

Educators have recognized this big miss, and as part of the US Department of Education’s goals for 21st century learning, they have tasked teachers with plugging this hole. After all, is there anything we do more frequently that has higher stakes than making choices? Imagine if every young person learned decision-making before they turned eighteen. Then high school graduates would have the skills to not only get closer to their goals, but also to their dreams.

If you’re a high school teacher or administrator interested in 21st century learning and innovative education – and would be excited to be one of the first to bring this life skill to your school, read on and join us now!

Last year, 300 students in nine low-income high schools around the country began doing just that by learning how to make their big decisions better.  They were part of Decisive, a pilot educational technology curriculum that broke down the AREA Method — a decision making system that uniquely controls for bias, focuses on the incentives of others and expands knowledge while improving judgment — into a series of 30 minute blended-learning digital experiences. Students could access these modules on their phones or on a computer.

The pilot high school program followed the successful roll-out of a high school decision-making boot camp that ran on a rainy Sunday in the spring of 2017. For that initial one-day program, The Future Project, a national education nonprofit operating in mostly low-income schools, brought together students from several different New Jersey and New York City high schools. The outcomes of the boot camp were chronicled in a blog post on this site entitled The AREA Method: A High School Boot Camp to Make Big Decisions Better. You can also watch a brief two-minute video of the boot camp in action.

What were the outcomes of the longer-term decision-making program that followed the initial day-long boot camp? The follow-up program, called Decisive, ran for the winter and spring of the 2017-18 academic year. Below is a look at Decisive’s results, starting with the student participants’ feedback:

  • 100% said decision-making should be taught in schools
  • 90% thought Decisive modules should be used in school
  • 85% said they recommended the modules to a friend
  • 80% said they enjoyed completing the modulesDATA SET

Nine high schools, located in California (San Francisco, LA), Connecticut (New Haven, Norwalk), New Jersey (Newark), New York (Brooklyn, Manhattan), and Michigan (Detroit) tested two digital modules: one that introduced students to decision making and one that focused on introducing students to mental shortcuts and common cognitive biases.

Most of the participating students were juniors and seniors in high school and most students chose to use the modules to make decisions relating to their post-graduation future. Beyond those decisions, students reported using the module for the following decisions:

  • “Should I get a summer job?”
  • “Which summer program should I apply for?”
  • “How can I be more responsible with my money?”
  • “Should I apply for a leadership program out of state?”
  • “Should I buy a car?”
  • “Should I try to get a new job?”
  • “Should I tell my parents about my new relationship?”
  • “Should I audition for the spring play?”


Teachers were impressed with the program, describing the module content as “substantial.”  The teachers who reported the most satisfaction with the program were those who had an advisory period or another dedicated time slot to use the modules because they were able to facilitate the experience and directly discuss decision-making as its own topic. Teachers incorporating the modules into their subject content, i.e. in an Economics, English, or Biology class, reported that Decisive enabled them to easily augment their curricular needs without needing to directly discuss decision-making but gave students the positive externality of learning about decision-making.

One teacher reported that she used the modules to help her students make better college decisions. It reinforced for her the teaching principle of “giving students a universally applicable process to use on different problems, similar to [providing students with a] writing structure.”


For many students, the idea that decision-making was a skill felt revolutionary. Presenting decision-making as a something that could to be broken down into components and taught – like the Pythagorean Theorem or the structure of a thesis paragraph — seemed to create an awakening for students, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They had not previously seen themselves as decision makers and had never thought that learning how to make complex decisions could give them a sense of agency over their lives. After completing Decisive, students said:

  • They hadn’t realized how many decisions they make each day.
  • They had not known how to evaluate options before being exposed to Decisive.
  • Breaking big decisions down into Critical Concepts — those few factors that will determine whether the outcome was successful for them — made decision-making more manageable and tactical because it focused their efforts.
  • Mastering Decisive’s decision-making skills made them less fearful about making decisions.

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  • “I have a greater awareness of the choices I have and better intentionality in my decision making.”
  • “I think learning this process made me just think about my decisions more. It made me realize how important it was to stop before I jump to a conclusion.”
  • “Doing this process a couple of times has changed the way that I make decisions. I’m much more thoughtful now. And I know when I’m falling back on my old way.”
  • “This decision-making system is stuck in my brain. I think everyone should have to learn it. My friends need to know how to make better decisions.”
  • “Now I feel like I can make the big choices in my life, like college – I’m sure that I can make a decision that I won’t regret now.”
  • “I think teachers would really like for us to use this because then they could trust us more”
  • “I wish I had this when I was in 9th grade.”
  • “I wish that I had an extra 30 minutes with each of my classes to review real life skills like decision-making.”NEXT STEPS

We are currently in the process of updating the test modules based on user feedback. We plan to launch two new modules in the fall of 2018: one that teaches students about themselves as decision-makers and helps them identify strengths and potential pitfalls of their decision-making style, and one that focuses on teaching students to spot assumptions and judgments and to collect evidence to test assertions made by others. Also in the works: developing teacher facilitation guides and a dashboard for teachers so they can more closely follow student progress within the modules.

How can you help? Join us! We are recruiting schools and establishing partnerships. If you are a high school teacher or administrator please sign up to participate in Decisive’s 2018-19 pilot to further test the efficacy of teaching high schoolers how to make big decisions better. Contact me:

How can AREA help you and your business make big decisions better? Sign up for coaching, workshops or have Cheryl come to speak to your organization by emailing Cheryl can customize an in-person workshop for your company. Follow Cheryl on Twitter: @cheryleinhorn or visit Pick up a copy of Cheryl’s award winning book Problem Solved, which was just honored as a finalist for the best business book in the general category by the International Book Awards.

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