The paradox of choice in the classroom

In The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the case is made that while we may champion autonomy, too many options often lead to dissatisfaction.

“Choice” and “autonomy” are popular buzzwords in education. The philosophy of letting students do what they want and allowing them to guide their own instruction is almost sacred, with some individuals purporting that teachers are an encumbrance more than anything else. We all want students to be empowered, but what does “empowered” mean? Does it mean they gain knowledge (and knowledge is power)? Does it mean they control the classroom regarding how information is presented? Does it mean they are the leaders, and the teacher is a facilitator? Can both students and teachers be empowered? If so, how does this play out?

Many would say that autonomy is involved in the answers to all of the above questions–but is this necessary true?

Schwartz makes many interesting points in his book; one of the main takeaways is how choice can lead to paralysis. There’s a lot of information students can learn–especially in a classroom with 1:1 devices where our collective knowledge is just a click away. There are many ways teachers can structure how students learn. This means there’s a lot of autonomy flying around. Is this a good thing, or will teachers and students drown in a sea of choices?

I haven’t read all of The Paradox of Choice yet, so I’m going to hold off on writing too much–maybe I’ll write a 1,000+ word post in the near future. At any rate, here are some ideas that will be gestating as I finish the book:

  • Teachers need to grow in their skill sets so they can in turn teach those skills to students. Autonomy comes into play when teachers can choose which skills they want to use (and teach) in the classroom.
  • Autonomy is not necessarily good or bad. It’s all in how you use it. A limited number of choices seems to be a good balance of empowerment verses feeling overwhelmed.
  • Autonomy could be considered a cop out for those who train teachers. For example, when I go to the doctor, I want the doctor to choose the best course of action based on his or her research and experience. I definitely don’t want the doctor to ask me what should be done. (Unfortunately, this happens a lot.) PD presenters need to provide a curated list of tools for teachers to use, then they must show how the best practices can be implemented.
  • Similar to the above bullet-point, teachers who give students ample free time in class may believe every child will benefit, but this could be misguided based upon research put forth in Schwartz’s book. There’s a percentage of students who want direction–need direction–and giving them too much say in what will be accomplished every day will lead to wasted instructional time.
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