In thinking about systems change within schools, there are some essential questions to consider as a starting point: 

  • When teachers plan, are activities designed to engage students regularly incorporated into their lessons? 

  • For every lesson, do students know what they are learning, why they are learning about the topic, and how they know they have learned the content? 

  • Are both students and teachers using data to inform decisions about learning? 

  • Are students cognitively engaged? 

I often wonder, if an entire school can exit a building in a precise manner at the sound of a fire alarm, why is it so difficult to truly engage students cognitively in their learning and for schools to create environments for sustained academic growth?  

The Difference Between System 1 and System 2 Thinking in K-12 Education

A school leader makes thousands of decisions on a daily basis. How do we make sure the right decisions are made? Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking workbook, Thinking Fast and Slow, hones in on the decision-making process. (Check out this short Kahneman Interview for a brief background.) According to Kahneman, we rely on two different types of thinking processes when arriving at a decision. We use System 1 thinking during approximately 98% of our decisions. We make these decisions “without even thinking” as System 1 thinking is automatic. For example, one does not think about the hand they use when brushing their teeth every morning, it is automatic. When asked what 2+2 is, “without thinking” we know it is 4. When the bell rings at the end of class, it is automatic that students begin moving from one class to another. System 1 thinking is quick, emotional, and automatic. When utilizing System 1 thinking, we follow our first impression which often saves us time but can cause us to miss the big picture. If you ever made a “gut decision,” you used System 1 thinking. This model clearly connects to how we view and implement school improvement strategies. 

thinking fast and slow by daniel kahneman

We use System 2 when making analytical, deliberate, and rational decisions. For example, we use System 1 thinking to brush our teeth, but System 2 thinking when doing research to determine which toothpaste is best for fighting cavities. System 2 thinking is much more deliberate. It is not used for simple math problems but we invoke it when navigating abstract mathematical equations. A school leader uses System 2 thinking when analyzing student achievement data. Teachers call on System 2 thinking when planning specific differentiated learning experiences for individual students. Students leverage System 2 thinking when they are truly cognitively engaged. Systems 1 and 2 do not work in isolation. Many times, while in System 2, System 1 thinking takes over. System 1 thinking can cause us to be overly confident and more emotional than necessary in the decision-making process. Since System 2 is deliberate, it can cause a slowdown in the change process. 


brain chasing brain

Image Source

Systems 1 Thinking Means Creating Automaticity in the Classroom

As school leaders, how can we utilize System 1 and System 2 thinking as effectively as possible? There are some decisions that are made on a daily basis that can be more automatic. How can we create an environment in which teachers automatically incorporate learning targets and success criteria in every lesson or utilize specific, targeted feedback based on formative assessment results? Is there the possibility of every student cognitively engaging in every lesson? How can we make automaticity take hold? 

Student Engagement Protocols Support Students to Lead Their Own Learning

Saxton Middle School in the Patchogue-Medford School Union Free School District is an excellent example of how automaticity took hold. The Saxton faculty, under the leadership of Principal Michelle Kwon, is deliberately working to incorporate student engagement protocols into daily lessons, as part of their continuous improvement practices with The Foundational Five, a system that demonstrates significant increases in the use of instructional best practices. They agreed upon a protocol, or an agreed upon set of guidelines that ensure equal participation and accountability (Hammond, 2020). When this protocol is implemented, students work more effectively both independently and collaboratively and often in ways they are not in the habit of doing. Protocols can hold students accountable and responsible for their own learning and teach them how to lead their own learning. At Saxton, by establishing these protocols, cognitive student engagement is flourishing.

Automating Student Engagement in the Classroom

Think back to teaching a young person how to brush their teeth. At first, the child needs to intently focus, but after time brushing becomes second nature. Just like brushing your teeth, when learning targets, success criteria, engagement activities, higher order questioning, checking for understanding, targeted feedback and differentiation are incorporated into daily practice, the more likely it is that they will become automatic and part of their  System 1 thought processes. At Saxton Middle School, System 1 thinking is taking root during both the planning process and instructional time. Teachers are incorporating engagement activities into their practice on a daily basis. Students are taking control of their own learning while cognitively engaging with both the content and their peers. Automaticity is taking over.

Elements of Student Engagement


System 2 Thinking Requires Deliberation and Focus

How can schools utilize System 2 thinking to their advantage? System 2 thinking is deliberate. Yes, you can make a decision based on emotion or previous experience but using System 2 thinking helps you avoid potential pitfalls. When engaging in large change decisions, it is not recommended to go with your gut but rather to slow down and be deliberate.

Deliberate Data Collection and Focused Analysis Results in Strategy Alignment to District Needs

The City School District of Albany, through the use of The Data Triangle, a school improvement data tool, provides an excellent example of how to use data comprehensively to plan ahead, establish goals, and measure results. The district has five years of longitudinal data connected to significant areas of organizational structure. These areas include leadership, curriculum, instruction, student supports, and family connects. Each school within the district also has their own data set to create specific school based plans. While utilizing System 2 thinking, the district examines district wide and school level data for planning purposes. City District of Albany is a leader in these data driven practices and has collected data since the 2016-17 academic year. The district benefits from leveraging seven years of comparison data which show trends and is excellent for demonstrating longitudinal successes. Karen Bechdol, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development is the lead for successfully coordinating and executing this strategy. This data is instrumental in guiding the district’s professional development to be more relevant and aligned to district needs. The emotional (or gut decision) which can create more harm than good has been removed from the equation.

the data triangle of school improvement

The human brain is a wonderfully fascinating instrument that can help schools and districts effectuate change and support students in achieving great things, but it can also cause stumbling blocks. Tomorrow,  take a walk through your classrooms and consider: where can System 1 thinking be effective and where can System 2 thinking be utilized for better decision making?    


Hammond, Z. (2020). The power of protocols for equity. Educational Leadership, 77(7), 45-50. 

Inc. Magazine, Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast vs. Thinking Slow (Interview) retrieved at  

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan. 


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