Graphic Representations as Tools for Decision Making


Judith Howard

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

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.

A force field is drawn simply as a vertical line. On one side of the line, students list reasons in favor of a particular decision, and on the other side, they list reasons for making an alternative decision. Under each reason, they draw an arrow toward the line, making the width of the arrow indicate the amount of influence (force) the reason seems to carry:

Figure 1 shows a force field analysis used in the P-BliSS unit Gateways, which is built around the Chinese exclusion legislation of the late 1800s.9 As part of this learning activity, high school students are placed in the role of United States Congressmen in 1882. A bill designed to restrict Chinese immigration to the United States has been proposed, and they must re-enact the debate about this piece of legislation. Through the activity, the students acquire a greater understanding of the climate of prejudice that often greeted past immigrants to the United States, as well as an awareness of the kinds of arguments that made prejudice an influential force in U.S. history.

Students are given a bill that is a rough outline of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States for a period of ten years. In addition to halting Chinese immigration, the Exclusion Act required all Chinese persons to carry a “certificate of identification,” and it further prohibited courts from admitting Chinese people to citizenship. As students investigate the background of this bill, they find various kinds of data to inform the decision they have to make. They learn about the high rate of Chinese immigration in California due to an economic depression in China. They also learn about the growing pressure from West Coast workers to exclude the Chinese, who were a source of cheap labor at a time when California itself was experiencing the onset of a depression.

The force field can be introduced at any time, but starting early gives students the chance to identify relevant issues and then to reassess their importance as they gather additional information. A laminated force field that allows students to move and change arrows as their understanding of a problem grows can be especially effective. However displayed, the chart should be kept fluid so that students can add new forces or re-evaluate old ones as they work toward a decision. In one class, the regional pressure exerted by the section of the country experiencing the highest rate of Chinese immigration gained importance in students’ thinking as data were gathered. Another issue that changed in weight involved the crime rate imputed to Chinese immigrants. Students read about opium dens, prostitution, and gambling houses along what was called the “Barbary Coast.” They also found data that indicated positive lifestyles and a strong work ethic among Chinese immigrants. Force field arrows widened and narrowed as students discussed this information.

By keeping a force field fluid, students see not only how the nature of a problem may change based on information, but how influential some aspects of a problem can become. Typically, students begin analyzing the force field by counting the number of points on one side, but as understanding deepens, they begin to see how a single issue may carry sufficient weight to dominate the outcome. Almost always, a dominating force among students doing this unit is their fundamental belief that America is a nation that accepts all people and serves as a haven for the oppressed. Regardless of other arguments, a student will inevitably raise a voice to say, “Yes, but America is a nation of immigrants! It’s not right to exclude one nationality!”

The force field is a simple, but quite powerful, graphic tool for helping students identify how their own value system operates in decision making.


The Decision Tree

The decision tree is another way of depicting graphically the reasons for and against a particular decision, including the possible negative and positive consequences of alternative decisions. To construct a decision tree, students identify the alternatives they are considering and organize their reasoning in a visual display. As with the force field, it is effective to begin the decision tree early and invite students to make changes as new information is acquired.

I saw this graphic representation used very effectively by a class of 5th graders involved in a Lewis and Clark WebQuest,10 which asks students to decide which member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery should appear on a new coin honoring the historic journey. Teams of students representing different members of the expedition assemble arguments to present to the U.S. Treasury Board, another group of students that makes the final selection.

In this class, teams constructed a decision tree on a classroom wall using large index cards as “pro/con cards.” They added cards as new information was acquired and replaced cards as they revised their findings about the expedition. Later, as the teams representing different expedition members wrote out their final reports, they used the decision tree to organize their points. The tree also provided an effective visual focus on the day groups presented their arguments to the Treasury Board. See Figure 2 for a section of the decision tree constructed by this group of 5th graders.


The Decision Making Grid

The decision making grid is essentially a matrix used to represent decision alternatives and the selection criteria (attributes) that support them.11 Using the matrix format, decision alternatives are listed in column one, and attributes important to the alternatives are listed in row one. Each selection criteria can be assigned a weight, or significance score, indicating its relative importance to the decision. The decision maker then determines which attributes each alternative possesses and which it does not. If significance scores are used, the scores are totaled for each alternative.

To illustrate, let’s look at an 8th grade class engaged in a social studies unit on natural disasters. This particular class was interested in flood control after Hurricane Floyd devastated the eastern part of North Carolina in 1999. Floods resulting from this storm destroyed 7,000 homes, killed 51 people, and caused damages in excess of $6 billion. The teacher suggested that the class investigate flood management and, to bring closure to the activity, she set up a simulated meeting of County Commissioners who would hear proposals for local flood control and decide which approach their county would take to forestall similar damage in the future.

As this class researched floods and flood control, they learned that a number of approaches to flood hazard are available, including:

As their investigations continued, students began to define the criteria local authorities should consider when making a decision regarding flood management. These criteria included protection of life, protection of property, cost of implementation, durability of solution, environmental benefit, and acceptability to the public. At this point, students were ready to construct a decision making grid (see Figure 3).

As with the decision tree, the grid helps students organize their position statements. They can support their points by showing how each alternative decision entails a number of considerations. For example, in the flood management project, students argued that though flood protection and flood abatement approaches protect lives and property, they do nothing to benefit the environment or limit land development in hazardous areas, and therefore are not cost effective in the long run. Representing decisions in this way can be extremely helpful in clarifying the issues surrounding a decision.

Most importantly, a decision making grid serves to enhance students’ thinking. Students must articulate alternative decisions, distinguish relevant attributes, and assign relative importance to criteria. It is always interesting to witness the weighting of criteria and the totaling of points. Often the total, rather than indicating which decision alternative should be selected, indicates that important criteria are missing or that criterion weights should be adjusted. The 8th graders in our example were discussing the importance of preparedness and disaster relief efforts when one student raised her hand and said, “But that’s reactive! We need proactive measures, or measures that will last over time.” It was then that they added ‘durability of solution’ as a criterion.

Totaling encourages critical thinking and causes students to ask key questions about cost, time, feasibility, and acceptability:

> Will the decision cost more than our budget allows? Will it be cost effective over time?

> Will the decision allow us to meet our deadline?

> Will the decision work in actual practice?

> Will the decision have public endorsement?

Weighting and totaling also tends to focus the valuing component of decision making so that the process becomes iterative until a solution is found.



Decision making is an essential skill in social studies, but students must be taught to make decisions skillfully. Through graphic representations social studies teachers can help students “see” the relative importance of values in decision making, the significance of considering alternatives in light of criteria, and the possible consequences of each alternative. These thinking tools are transferable to any decision making circumstance and can enhance students’ ability to make more effective decisions in their communities and in their personal lives.



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994), vii.

2. From “In Search of a Scope and Sequence for Social Studies,” Social Education 53 (1989), 376-85.

3. John Kendall and Robert Marzano, Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education (Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, 1996).

4. B. B. Armbruster, T. H. Anderson, and J. Ostertag, “Does Text Structure/Summarization Instruction Facilitate Learning from Expository Text?” Reading Research Quarterly 22 (1987), 331-46; P. G. Avery, J. Baker, and S. H. Gross, “‘Mapping’ Learning at the Secondary Level,” The Social Studies (Sept/Oct 1996), 217-23.

5. J. N. Crank and J. A. Bulgren, “Visual Depictions as Information Organizers for Enhancing Achievement of Students with Learning Disabilities,” Learning Disabilities Research & Practice 8 (1993), 140-7; S. V. Horton, T. C. Lovitt, and D. Bergerud, “The Effectiveness of Graphic Organizers for Three Classifications of Secondary Students in Content Area Classes,” Journal of Learning Disabilities 23 (1990), 12-22, 29.

6. M. I. Bauer and P. N. Johnson-Laird, “How Diagrams Can Improve Reasoning,” Psychological Science 4 (1993), 372-8; D. Hyerle, “Thinking Maps: Seeing is Understanding,” Educational Leadership 53 (1995/96), 85-89; B. F. Jones, J. Pierce, and B. Hunter, “Teaching Students to Construct Graphic Representations,” Educational Leadership 46 (1988/89), 20-25.

7. Jones, Pierce, and Hunter, 25.

8. For more information about Project P-BLiSS (funded by the Jacob K. Javits Program, US Department of Education Grant # R206A70003), contact Dr. Shelagh A. Gallagher, Project Director, College of Education, UNC-Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28223-0001.

9. S. A. Gallagher, B. Romanoff, and B. Crossett, Gateways (University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 2000).

10. R. J. Peters, “Lewis and Clark: A WebQuest,” available at
landc.htm (accessed March 20, 2001).

11. Robert J. Marzano and Daisy E. Arredondo, Tactics for Thinking: Teacher’s Manual (Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory, 1986).


Judith Howard is associate professor of education at Elon University, Elon, North Carolina.

Table 1: List of Decision Making Skills

> Identify situations in which a decision is required
> 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

Figure 1. Force Field Analysis: What Forces Are at Work in this Decision?

Forces, factors, or conditions for supporting the legislation:
Forces, factors, or conditions against supporting the legislation:
Public opposition to Chinese immigrants in California America is a nation of immigrants—it goes against our philosophy of taking in the persecuted

Many Chinese immigrants came to this country seeking refuge from persecution and poverty
Some evidence of crime and drug trade that has accompanied the presence of Chinese immigrants in America
Most Chinese immigrants are law abiding
High rate of immigration in California
—growth of Chinese population higher here than anywhere else in the country
Proportion of Chinese immigrants in America as a whole is not large

Rate of immigration in the country as a whole is high—not just a question of
the Chinese
Poor economy—current citizens need jobs that Chinese immigrants are
taking right now
Chinese were originally recruited to come to the country to fill menial jobs (on railroads, in mines...)

Chinese live in poverty in the U.S.
because they are not allowed to earn enough to live in better conditions

High School Students used this force field to re-enact arguments about the 1882 Chinese Cxclusion Act.

Figure 2. Decision Making Tree: Graphical
Who should Appear on a Lewis and Clark Commemorative Coin?

Pro Con
Vital as interpreter and guide Already widely recognized
Gathered edible berries
and trapped animals
Demonstrated not a war party
Recognize contribution
of woman and Native American

Pro Con
Mentioned frequently in
People wouldn’t take selection
of dog seriously
Impressed the Indians Dog has no choice
Provided companionship
and protection
Helped in hunting for food
Recognize valuable contribution of

Figure 3. Decision Making Grid

Approaches to Flood Control

Protection of life Protection of property Cost Durability Environmental benefit Acceptability
Criterion weight 3 2 2 3 3 2
Build levees, dams
Provide emergency preparedness
Provide disaster insurance
Provide flood insurance
Adjust building structures and sites
Pursue voluntary buyouts