Decision Fields

Decision Fields blog post by Mick Purcell, Head of School at KC High IGCSE Cambridge International School

Recently my 6-year-old daughter, out of nowhere, ran up to me, hugged me, and said, “I love you, Dad!” Sweet, right? I think so, but it happened during the school day, just outside her classroom, in front of her 1st grade friends.

At home that night I spoke to my daughter,  “Sophie, thank you so much for hugging me today, and telling me you love me.” Sophie’s mother was listening.

“But Sophie,” I continued, “maybe you shouldn’t hug me at school.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“Sophie, you’re lucky,” I said, “because you see your Dad every day at school. And I am even luckier because I get to see you. But think of the other kids. They don’t get to see their Dads every day at school. So maybe they feel bad when they see you hugging your Dad – maybe they miss their Dads. Maybe, at school, you should just be a normal kid, and I’m just the principal, not your Dad.”

“THAT’S NONSENSE!” interjected my wife. “Ridiculous – Sophie, you continue hugging your Dad and telling him you love him. And let the other kids learn from you, and when they go home they should also hug their Dads and say ‘I love you, Dad.’”

Hmmmmmm. What is Sophie to do? It is not an easy decision.

Five minutes later I saw her pacing back and forth, muttering to herself, “think of the other kids . . . . but I’m just a normal kid . . . . ,” etc.

human choice - decision field theory blog by Mick Purcell, Head of School at KC High IGCSE Cambridge International School Chennai

The choice that a human makes depends on the amount of time that she takes to make the decision.
[Wikipedia: Decision Field Theory]

Years ago, when podcasts first made a splash, I listened to a lecture by an educational psychologist. I can’t remember his name, but he was British-Trinidadian-Indian. He was lecturing about Decision Fields. He claimed that kids learn the most when they need to make a decision in a field of options. If Dad says one thing and Mom says another, and they need to choose Dad’s way or Mom’s way, or choose their own way, their brains are super-attentive, thinking hard, and creating new solutions to difficult and important problems.

This is why it is important to ask learners to evaluate multiple perspectives.

I am very suspicious of educational programs that insist on children learning one way and only one way. I also have my doubts about factual questions. Sure, we all need to know that 9 x 6 = 54, but a question like, “does the data analysis support the hypothesis?” is more demanding. For example, pull a coin out of your pocket. Ask, “is this a fair coin?” Then, do an experiment and flip the coin ten times — suppose it comes up heads seven times out of ten. Some students might conclude that the data supports the hypothesis, while others argue that the data does not support the hypothesis. Good, let them argue! And how will we determine who is correct?

Decision Fields blog post by Mick Purcell, Head of School at KC High IGCSE Cambridge International School

It is cognitively taxing to have too many choices – the brain literally gets tired. Economists call this the Tyranny of Choice, and it often leads to no choice at all.

In questions around religion and ethics, which arguably should be introduced later, the question of multiple perspectives is even trickier. For example, some of us are Hindu, some are Muslim, some are Christian, some are Buddhist, and some have other faiths or no faith at all. That’s interesting. Perhaps you believe in an everlasting soul and I do not.

Shouldn’t we be allowed to ask each other, “Why?”

A few years ago, my son Jason asked me, “Dad, can I be Christianity?” Besides correcting his grammar, I did not know what to do. I said, “Jason, it’s your mind, and you can and will believe whatever you want, but I will tell you what I believe and why . . . .”

When he asked his mother the same question, he got a different answer. She explained how our family thinks and he is part of our family, so he thinks the same way.

Poor kid: he is faced with a difficult Decision Field about something important: his core beliefs!

It’s OK, he will work it out, just like Sophie.

Mick Purcell Head of School at KC High Chennai

Mick Purcell is the head of school at KC High, Chennai. He teaches mathematics, creative writing, elementary drama, disc sports, reputation management, and Rubik’s cube.

He has 3 beautiful children and a lovely wife, but he dreams about climbing mountains and getting away from it all. You can email him at

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