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The Tyranny of Student Choice: How Much is Too Much?

by Ossa Fisher on October 5, 2017

My third-grade daughter came home from the library very excited to show us her latest find: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the most recent release in the Harry Potter series. I took a deep breath and looked at my husband as we knew the storylines become increasingly sophisticated with age. A quick glance on Common Sense Media told me this book would contain death, drunkenness, and kissing—quite a bit for an innocent girl who just turned nine.

From my role in education and as a parent, I know that student choice increases a student’s sense of agency. In a report by The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, agency is defined as “the opposite of helplessness.”

Of course I want my children, and all students across America, to grow up to be intentional in their actions and feel ownership over their decisions. But is there such a thing as too much choice?

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The Tyranny of Choice

There is considerable research to suggest that the benefits of having choices—at any age—level off after a certain point. Too many choices can even have detrimental effects. As Barry Schwartz writes in Scientific American:

“The relation between choice and well-being is complicated. Being able to choose has enormously important positive effects on us. But only up to a point. As the number of choices we face increases, the psychological benefits we derive start to level off. And some of the negative effects of choice accelerate.”

The Economist concurs, explaining that much of this choice is “reflexive activity,” especially for digital natives, where the abundance of digital choices leads to our youngest “picking rather than choosing,” and then simply hoping for the best.

Finding Goldilocks

At Istation, the educational technology company where I work, we are continually working to balance the importance of giving students enough choice to increase their feelings of agency, while simultaneously bounding their available choices to ensure productive decisions.

In our framework for student agency, we’ve included four pillars that we discuss regularly:

  • Increasing choice and autonomy
  • Activating personal goal-setting and reflection
  • Allowing peer-to-peer collaboration
  • Embracing authentic real-world experiences

In the first pillar, increasing choice and autonomy, we have the ability within the application to allow for an amalgamation of choices, but we also bound the choice set to ensure effective progression in a critical subject area. While I fully appreciate that finding the goldilocks of choice is much easier said than done, the architecture inherent in a software app does afford us this luxury. In many ways, this ability makes educational technology a great way to foster increased student agency in an academic setting.

Real-world experiences are much tougher to constrain, and even technology, when moving beyond a single application and into the vortex of the Internet, creates a limitless set of choices for students.

In our house, still operating within thegolden yearsof parenting with a second and third grader, we are able to constrain choices for our children with decent effectiveness. When it comes to technology, we allow them to choose amongst certain apps, but not all apps. We allow them to search Google on certain topics but only with active parent supervision. And we allow television on Saturday mornings but bar it entirely during the week and on school nights (Dallas Cowboys games excepted!).

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Decisions Have Consequences

The real world of adolescence will soon be upon us, and at that time simply constraining the choice set will not be feasible. The goal of course, over time, is to gradually increase the number of decisions a student can make, so that when faced with the limitless decisions available to one in adult life, that individual has the internal toolkit to do so mindfully.

Does this mean that all choices for students need to be good choices? Far from it. In fact, in many ways, a growing child should stumble many times (both literally and figuratively).

At the school our daughters attend, they recommend a no rescue policy. This means that if a student forgets their gym clothes, parents should not come to their rescue and drop them off at lunchtime. If a student forgets their homework, it stays at home. This is all with the intentionality of allowing for failures and giving students the opportunity to learn the consequences of their decision-making.

As the old saying goes, “good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.” As a parent and educator, I want to allow students to make decisions and to learn that decisions have consequences. Learning to deal with both positive outcomes and a few messes in life is vital to developing the all-important skills of grit and resilience.

Voice, Choice, Rejoice

Consistently making good decisions is a skill that is learned over time. While we parents and educators cannot limit choice indefinitely, we can introduce more advanced choices with age and experience.

After thinking through the pros and cons of the new Harry Potter book, we allowed our daughter to read it. She was delighted and is devouring the pages on a nightly basis. In our view, the importance that she have enthusiasm for reading outweighed the risks of being exposed to mature content. I do thank Common Sense Media for giving me such a detailed overview of the book itself; it helped us feel confident in our decision.

There is no perfect answer to the question “How much choice is too much?” The answer depends heavily on the individual and the environment. Ultimately, the goal is to activate agency over time and teach children how to choose wisely, all while introducing sufficient choices to keep life (and school) interesting. Students thrive best in an environment that empowers their voice in key decisions, provides experience and frameworks to help them make an intelligent choice, and is able to support and rejoice with positive feedback when the process leads to successful outcomes.

Topics: Closing the Achievement Gap, Innovations in Education

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