Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

What Would You Do? Constructing Decision-Making Guidelines through Historical Problems

Kevin O’Reilly

Instruction in history should encourage students to create meaning not only of content, but also of the critical thinking skills used to evaluate that content.1 This article describes lessons that focus on one area of critical thinking—decision making—infused into my 11th grade “Modern U.S. and World History” course. In these lessons, students role play decision makers in history. They grapple with problems, compare their decisions with those made at the time, and construct guidelines for improving their thinking in the area of decision making.2
What follows are descriptions of two decision-making lessons and how they played out in the classroom:
•Causes of World War I
•The “Bloody Sunday” Massacre

Causes of World War I
In this exercise, students formed three groups to represent Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. Each group included one student to act as recorder and others to act as negotiators to other countries. The decision-making problem was clearly defined, the time for making decisions was short, and the assignment to negotiate with classmates proved engaging to students. Following the introduction of the problem, the lesson continued through three rounds of decision making.
The role of the instructor in the simulation was twofold: moving from group to group to answer questions and help students to stay on task, and representing the other major countries involved in the crisis, including Britain, France, and Serbia. Thus, when the group playing Germany wanted to know how France might react if Serbia were invaded, it sent a representative to ask me. Similarly, when the Austria-Hungary group prepared an ultimatum to Serbia, they sent it to me.
Round 1 began with the leaders of each country receiving a short description of the political situation in Europe in July 1914 as it affected that country’s interests.3 Figure 1 shows the description provided to Austria-Hungary. All groups began the simulation with the same four maps.
In all three classes that performed the simulation, Round 1 ended with Austria-Hungary asking and receiving support from Germany to issue demands on Serbia. In Round 2, Serbia accepted most but not all of these demands, and Austria-Hungary mobilized on Serbia’s border. At this point, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II was given a card explaining the implications of mobilization by Austria-Hungary, and the pros and cons of mobilizing Russian forces to support Serbia.
In all three classes, the tsar ordered partial mobilization on the border of Austria-Hungary only. The intention was to ward off that empire’s invasion of Serbia without threatening Germany. Unfortunately, the tsar shortly learned that because the Russian army had never prepared for partial mobilization it had mobilized fully, including areas along the German border!
Round 3 began with Germany’s leaders receiving the information shown in Figure 2. In all three classes, the students playing Germany felt the pressure of making a decision under strict time limits. Two groups decided to invade Belgium, causing France, Russia, and Britain to enter the conflict—in short, starting a general war. In the third class, however, Germany accepted the British proposal to mediate, the Austro-Hungarians and Russians both made concessions, and the crisis ended in a negotiated settlement.

Analyzing Decision Making
The follow-up to this simulation began with the question: What were the causes of World War I? Students easily named the traditional underlying causes—militarism, nationalism, and alliances —and explained how they led to the war. For example, they described how such factors as pride in the military, concern about national honor, and the obligation to uphold the interests of allies influenced various nations to take risky actions. But they also recognized other causes for the war, such as misperceptions, revenge, arrogance, paranoia, and poor communication. For example, students in one Russian group said they hadn’t considered asking the Germans to explain their perspectives on the crisis (arrogance), nor did they ask how Germany would view Russia’s decision to mobilize (misperceptions and poor communication).
Following analysis of the decision-making process used in the simulation, each class drew up a list of guidelines for making good decisions, and prepared a poster to place on the wall of the classroom (Figure 3 shows one list).4 The poster had space at the bottom to add guidelines as the students experienced other decision-making exercises.
Students agreed that use of these guidelines would have helped them make better decisions in the simulation. For example, one student said that if he had more clearly articulated his goal of avoiding war, he would have sought the perspectives of other countries and worked more diligently to negotiate with them. Another said she didn’t realize until after the simulation that she had based many of her decisions on assumptions about how other countries would react, without seeking information that would show whether those assumptions were correct.5

The “Bloody Sunday” Massacre
In this simulation, students role-played Tsar Nicholas II after the “Bloody Sunday” Massacre of 1905. The exercise began with a handout explaining the historical context of the event: poor living conditions in Russia, autocratic and corrupt government, popular discontent with military defeats in the Russo-Japanese War, food shortages resulting from the war, and agitation by socialist councils (soviets). It then described the shooting of civilians by palace guards in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.6 The handout posed this question for the tsar:
Students formed groups of three to address this question. One student acted as recorder, while another monitored the group’s use of the decision-making guidelines developed by the class. Each group discussed the problem and possible solutions. The teacher then used a “think aloud” strategy7 to illustrate how someone might think through the problem acting as Tsar Nicholas II (see Figure 4).
Students noted the tsar’s use of historical analogies to the American and French Revolutions. The class had previously compared these two revolutions in a critical thinking exercise on evaluating analogies.8 Students now applied their skills in a new context.
Several students argued that, since the Stamp Act dispute involved colonists whereas the Bloody Sunday dispute involved citizens (a difference), concessions might have been more appropriate in the Russian case. Students also noted how the think aloud strategy had redefined the issue to identify an underlying problem (the war with Japan). We added to our guidelines:

7. Recognize the analogies you’re using and analyze them
8. State (or restate) problems carefully

In this sequence of lessons, students were not given a decision-making model or a list of criteria for making better decisions. Rather, they constructed their own guidelines as they experienced a series of decision-making problems. Students employed metacognition9—thinking about their own thinking as they decided what to do in historical situations—to compile (with supervision and questioning) a list of guidelines for improving their own decision making.
Through the decision-making process, students learned how complex history really is. During one of the simulations, a frustrated student turned to me and said, “This is hard. We don’t know what to do!” An understanding of complexity gives students a sense of humility in making judgments about history, and builds empathy for decision makers in history.
These exercises also demonstrate that content learning and process learning need not and should not be separate. Students learned a great deal of content during the simulations, as evidenced by their essays on these topics. The tests used to assess students’ learning evaluated their use of both historical information and the decision-making guidelines.
In using decision-making skills, students should ideally be able to (1) assess the reliability of the information they have, (2) consider the perspectives of others, (3) question their own assumptions and prejudices, (4) keep in mind their overall goals and values, (5) anticipate consequences, and (6) analyze analogies. It’s a tall order, but it’s basically what we ask citizens to do as they make decisions in a democratic society.

1. Critical thinking here means the analysis and evaluation of arguments. The critical thinker asks, “Why should I believe this?” Some of the skills involved in critical thinking are: judging the reliability of sources, evaluating cause and effect arguments, assessing analogies, and identifying assumptions. See “Guide to Critical Thinking” in Kevin O’Reilly, Critical Thinking in United States History (Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Books and Software, 1993).
2. Decision-making models are helpful in some situations, but Gary Klein and other researchers question their usefulness for ill-defined tasks in time-pressured situations. Fire-ground commanders, chess players, and experts in various fields do not use formal decision-making models. See Gary Klein, Judith Orasanu, Roberta Calderwood, and Caroline Zsambok, eds., Decision Making in Action: Models and Methods (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1993).
3. The handouts for this lesson were based primarily on Laurence Lafore, The Long Fuse: An Interpretation of the Origins of World War I (New York: Lippincott, 1965) and William Jannen, The Lions of July (Navato, CA: Presidio, 1996).
4. The idea for decision-making guidelines is based primarily on Richard Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986).
5. Richard Paul considers the willingness to evaluate one’s own beliefs to be critical thinking in the strongest sense. See Richard Paul, “Critical Thinking: Fundamental to Education for a Free Society,” Educational Leadership 42 (September, 1984): 4-14.
6. Daniel Roselle, Our Western Heritage (Lexington, MA: Ginn, 1981), section on “The Revolution of 1905.”
7. The “think aloud” strategy, along with many other worthwhile teaching strategies, is from Jon Saphier, The Skillful Teacher (Carlisle, MA: Research for Better Teaching, 1987).
8. O’Reilly, 7-8, on criteria for evaluating analogies; on the use of analogies in decision making, see Gary Klein,”Applications of Analogical Reasoning” in Metaphor and Symbolic Activity (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987).
9. The idea for using metacognition is from Arthur Costa, “Teaching For, Of, and About Thinking” in Arthur Costa, ed., Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1985), 21-23.

Kevin O’Reilly teaches history at Hamilton-Wenham High School in Massachusetts. He is the author of the four-volume Critical Thinking in United States History.

Figure 1
Memorandum to Emperor Franz Josef

June 28, 1914. The Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife have been assassinated in Sarajevo. This is very serious in light of your age and state of health, since the Archduke can no longer succeed you. Evidence shows that the Serbian security forces knew about the plot, and may even have helped plan it. Serbia is the greatest threat to the security of your empire, since it is Slavic and incites other Slavs (47 percent of your people) to seek independence. Furthermore:
1. Foreign minister Count Berchtold, a close friend of the Archduke, is convinced that Serbia was involved in the assassination plot and wants revenge.
2. In the Balkan Wars that ended last year, Turkey and Bulgaria were defeated, while Serbia doubled in size. Serbia is definitely expanding and looking to take over two more Austro-Hungarian provinces, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina.
3. France supports Serbia with military aid. Russia, as the leader of pan-Slavism, obviously supports Serbia.
4. If the Serbs get away with this outrage, the people may see your government as so weak that they’ll feel you don’t deserve to rule Austria-Hungary any longer.
5. Baron Conrad, the Chief of Staff of the army, says that at long last we should teach Serbia a lesson. Serbia’s army, at about ten divisions of 10,000 men each, is no match for our 48 divisions.

Figure 2
Top Secret Note to Kaiser Wilhelm II

1. The Russian decision to mobilize its army presents a serious crisis. Our intelligence people believe Russia will attack if Austria-Hungary takes land from Serbia.
2. We have a great army, yet we have had to back down in several other crises. We shouldn’t have to back down again.
3. British leaders have offered to mediate a settlement of the crisis between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.
4. Our military leaders have a plan, the von Schleiffen Plan, to defeat France and Russia one at a time. Under this plan, Germany will mount a quick attack on France through Belgium before Russia (which will take perhaps six weeks to prepare its army to fight) can mobilize. Germany will then attack Russia.
5. Every day that Russia continues to mobilize is one less day that Germany has to defeat France before Russia is ready to attack Germany. Our generals are urging the attack on France before it’s too late.

Figure 3
Decision-Making Guidelines

1. Watch assumptions
2. Get important information and assess the reliability of the sources
3. List your goals and values before making decisions
4. Think of options and outcomes
5. Consider the perspectives, intentions, and motives of the other groups
6. Keep open communication

Figure 4
Tsar Nicholas II Thinks Aloud

I have to make concessions or there will be trouble. But a tsar shouldn’t make concessions—it will make me look weak. Look what happened when the British repealed the Stamp Act in the 1760s. The American colonists smelled weakness and felt they could make the British back down on any point, which led to the American Revolution. I surely don’t want a revolution.
I could cut taxes. That would be popular with just about everyone. But wait! I can’t because we’re at war with Japan. It would increase the debt, which would kill the government, as it did in France when debt led to the French Revolution.
Actually, maybe the war with Japan is the real problem. If we end the war, we could make some reforms, cut taxes, and improve living conditions. I’ll get my diplomats and generals to give me the situation in the war and see if we can negotiate an end to it.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.