“Not To Decide… Is To Decide!” Solving the Riddle for 21st-Century Learning


My social studies teacher, Mrs. Rupert, had a favorite response to sleepy, disengaged students: "Not to decide ... is to decide." Turns out it is a quote from Harvard Professor Harvey Cox, but she adopted it as her mantra. Back in the 1980s in western Pennsylvania, disco and Reaganomics were the rage, and Mrs. Rupert wanted us to know that we were embarking on a lifetime of important decision-making.

A lot has changed since then. Hip-hop has replaced disco (thank goodness), and the internet has just about replaced textbooks, but Mrs. Rupert’s maxim still applies. If we decide to let circumstances or other people make our decisions (both large and small), we engage in a form of apathetic fatalism that stunts both intellectual and personal growth.

21centuryDecisionsWith the abundance of information and changing demands of the workplace, 21st-century students need opportunities to practice making decisions more than ever. In Defining a 21st Century Education, Craig D. Jerald describes the need for less hierarchy and supervision and more autonomy and collaboration to prepare students for a less predictable and more spontaneous workplace.

Seminars, simulations, and many other forms of project-based learning are great ways to help students make decisions that lay the scaffolding in their own education process.

Here are 5 easy ways to help students develop independence and decision–making skills:

  1. Stop at strategic moments in a story, an experiment, or a historic event, and announce a “Decision Point” where students are charged to make the next critical decision and defend their choice. There are fun social media voting tools that can diagram results like polling data, but the key is for students to get comfortable explaining their decisions.
  1. Assign open-ended, project-based learning that engages student leadership and organization in every aspect of the experience. If you are preparing for a science fair, make sure students act as project managers, facility managers, and publicity agents for the event. If you are producing a play, make sure there is a student director, stage manager, and stage designer, and give them real authority to make decisions that have consequences (even if the results suffer). And always engage in a constructive “post-mortem” analysis of projects. Honest feedback is essential to honing decision-making skills.
  1. Set up revolving seats on a “student honor council” to review class management issues and ethical debates. If students offend or insult one another, a peer-led committee could evaluate consequences and lead class discussions on resolving class issues. Social decisions are as important as academic decisions.
  1. Periodically give students a choice of assignments: Write a paper/ give a class presentation / or create your own mechanism for illustrating the content and skills you have learned.
  1. Offer a “Fun, but Fruitful, Friday” once a month, with a revolving committee to plan and lead the activities in class that day.

One surprising challenge for teachers is to know when to step out of the way. In the recently acclaimed movie Most Likely to Succeed, one of my favorite scenes shows a teacher at High Tech High in San Diego giving students a diagram and short explanation that they are having a seminar and will need inner and outer circles. He then tells them to arrange the chairs and tables in the room accordingly. It was as if he'd asked them to split an atom! But they gradually became more comfortable and confident taking a hands-on role in their educational environment. Making small, practical decisions helps to grease the wheels for the tougher ones down the road. Active participation in all aspects of learning is the goal.

Like all riddles, Mrs. Rupert’s riddle is a clever turn of phrase to make you stop and think. If displayed at the front of the room and silently pointed to every once in a while to make a dramatic gesture, as she did, it would have an impact.  But as teachers it also presents a powerful challenge: How can we let go of the reins a bit and provide added opportunities for students to develop decision-making skills?


About Author

Molly Farrow

Molly Farrow taught high school history for 11 years in Wake County and Durham County. She also taught at the Taipei American School in Taiwan. She received a M.A.T. degree from the University of North Carolina and a B.S. degree in Political Science from Wake Forest University. Outside work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family and their dog, Dante.


  1. valerie faulkner on

    Great Blog! I will share the idea about the class council with my elementary education students in particular. This will help them, I think, understand how behavior is a decision and the class culture has a big impact. Love the other ideas too.

  2. Daud Abdel-Aziz on

    This is an excellent article. I too was told "not to decide is to decide." I can't remember which one of my high school teachers said these words to me without attributing them to Professor Cox. However, I have held this quote inside throughout my life. We teachers have enormous responsibility without the authority to help shape what happens in our classrooms. But, the first step is to engage our students in meaningful activities that are relevant to who they are and the world they will live in. Thank you for this article.

Leave A Reply

Back to Top