[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Even though working at a school site means you’ll be entering unknown territory every day, having a clear and disciplined strategy isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential if you want clarity about your practice and its impact. It sounds weird to say, but lack of options are actually freeing. Being able to do everything can be a prison. I’m reminded of a movie from the 1990s entitled The Devil’s Advocate. Keanu Reeves is a lawyer who joins a successful law firm in New York. Unbeknownst to him, his boss (Al Pacino) is the devil. Pacino’s character puts Reeves and his wife (Charlize Theron) through the ringer. One of the more interesting ways he does this is bestowing upon Reeves and Theron a beautiful Manhattan home that’s a complete blank slate inside. The young couple needs to paint the white walls and furnish each room. As the plot progresses, the decisions begin to eat away at Theron’s sanity, so much so that she’s painting the walls over and over again, trying to find the perfect color. Instead of lashing her with a cat o’ nine tails in a fiery landscape, the devil tortures her with gallons of paint in an upscale neighborhood.

By giving Theron’s character unlimited options, she became trapped in a prison of choices. During collaboration time when leaders tell teachers, “Do it however you want, just make sure X gets done,” leaders are unaware they’re likely causing confusion and frustration. After a long day of teaching students and making choices about instruction, curriculum, discipline, and more, teachers more often than not want to be given parameters in order to facilitate the deep work they’ll be accomplishing as a team. To not give teachers this structure is at the best foolish and at the worst cruel. Teachers want clarity of strategy–if they don’t get it, their whole meeting can be derailed before it even starts.

Decision making is extremely difficult. Not only that, it’s draining. President Obama is famous for wearing pre-selected suits every day to eliminate morning decisions. The same goes for Mark Zuckerberg; wearing informal t-shirts and hoodies helps him focus less on smaller decisions that deplete brain power, which frees up processing capacity for problem solving and unforeseen daily events. What both President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg are aware of is the insidious Paradox of Choice.

So what is the Paradox of Choice? It’s a fact that while people want autonomy to make their own decisions and have options offered to them, having too many options is unbearable. You can perceive this when talking to employees. At one moment a teacher or administrator is saying they want to be treated like adults and left alone to make their own professional choices, and at other times they feel overwhelmed because they’re not being told explicitly what to do. Striking a balance between the two is extremely difficult, and there’s obviously not a silver bullet to make the paradox any easier. The best approach as a leader is to make a few big decisions you know you won’t reverse, and then pour all your energy into those limited programs, initiatives, or strategies instead of second-guessing them. By doing this, you’re forced to rely on your purpose, and you’re forced to focus your direction.

For more about the Paradox of Choice, I highly recommend reading this.

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.