Monday Musing: The Choice is Yours

Okay, so it’s technically Tuesday, but I wrote this on Monday and so I’m counting it.

Monday Musing: The Choice is Yours


One of the first things you learn as a new teacher is the power of choice. Kids (especially adolescents) are hyper-aware of how many decisions are being made for them, and when presented with a choice, they are much more likely to engage and get on board with a learning experience than if they are just presented with a command. The trick is to provide two options that you, the educator, are okay with. For example:

You’ve kicked off independent reading at desks and one of your students does not want to sit at her desk. You give her two options: 1) You can read independently at your desk for 10 minutes and then move to a seat on the floor if you meet expectations, or 2) You can read independently at your desk for the whole period while meeting expectations and earn the privilege of sitting on the floor during tomorrow’s independent reading block.

The other scenario is when you build choice into project or assignment options: for example, that students can opt to demonstrate mastery of creating a well-supported argument by writing a traditional argumentative essay or writing a persuasive speech.

You get the idea, right? Give learners choice and they feel empowered. They feel empowered, and they are more game for whatever you are trying to facilitate them through or teach them. They’re more empowered, and they have ownership over their learning. They have ownership over their learning, and they’re more intrinsically motivated to try, even when things get hard. Choice is great...except when it’s not.

Last month, I co-facilitated an ideation/prototyping workshop for educators who had been doing extended design thinking projects at their respective schools. The classroom teacher in me kicked in, and during one activity, I gave teams choice: “You can use this scaffolding or you can do your own thing. You can create 1 or 4 final products for this activity.” Great, right? These are adults! They love choice...except when they don’t.

During instruction, while proudly displaying my well-informed facilitator skills by providing choice, I saw some blank stares. As participants jumped into the activity, I noticed that multiple teams needed extra instruction to get started. I couldn’t figure it out; these were adults who had shown a readiness to dive in and a lack of need for extended instruction. What was going on?

I believe my big mistake was to assume that all choice is good in a learning environment. I don’t think that’s true; structure and consistency in things like processes and scaffolds allow learners to focus their attention and efforts on complex challenges and meaty content. Consistent practices (such as creating a common cadence for a type of learning session - say, an Ideation Block looks like x) provide the right amount of constraints to free up creative problem-solving. Too much choice frustrated my adult learners and created too many decision paths for them, when they wanted clarity on what was expected of them so they could then play with, stretch, and maybe even break those expectations.

So, the lesson for me here: provide choice, but only where it matters.

If you’re curious about the power and challenges of choice, I recommend:

The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar

The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz

Monday Musing: The Power of Language

Monday Musing: Reflecting and Reinventing