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.

Flow in education

I just finished reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. The book is wonderful, but one of the most enjoyable parts was the authors referenced by Wiliam. He mentioned Robert Pirsig, which prompted me to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He also wrote of John Wooden, Malcolm Gladwell, Barry Schwartz, and Marianne Williamson. You can be confident that an educational author who includes these people in his or her book is on to something.

Most interesting was Wiliam’s inclusion of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi describes ‘flow’ as being so absorbed in an activity, you’re not even thinking about it. It’s someone who’s attempting a task that’s interesting and challenging. Wiliam explains it this way:

When the level of challenge is low and the level of capability is high, the result is often boredom. When the level of challenge is high and the level of capability is low, the result is generally anxiety. When both are low, the result is apathy. However, when both capability and challenge are high, the result is ‘flow.’

That sweet spot of high capability and challenge is what all teachers should strive to implement in their classrooms. An example of this is Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is used by STAR Reading and Accelerated Reader to help students pick books that are challenging, but not too challenging. A book within a student’s ZPD may not be easy, but the goal of finishing it is not out of reach. Likewise, the objectives a teacher introduces in class must mirror this type of ZPD criteria. Student buy-in is highest when the objective is challenging and the student believes he or she can learn it. When this occurs, classes hum along with the sounds of student inquiry and productivity.