Choice, Choices, Choices

I get overwhelmed by choice very easily. In fact, one of the reasons I like being a pescatarian (vegetarian + fish) is that it instantly reduces my choices at restaurants. As much as I like feeling in control, I don’t mind when particular choices are unavailable to me because it means less decision-making stress.

Sheena Iyengar’s keynote about choice at NAIS Annual Conference 2011 has me thinking about the kinds of choices I give students. (Check out this cool graphic recording of the keynote.) She noted that people generally perform better when given choice (although this was nuanced a bit based on individual characteristics), but that too much choice can be paralyzing.

In my classes, I often employ a choices + suggestions model. Those students who get overwhelmed easily by choice can operate within the pre-defined choices, but those who feel restricted by those choices still have the autonomy to suggest alternate choices. As a teacher, it also reduces the choices that I have to make. I can think carefully through the options I initially offer students and then consider the alternate requests rather than having to think through requests by every student. The choice of topics for the Shift project worked this way.

Another way to provide choice such that students feel empowered rather than overwhelmed is to allow either choice of content or mode of presentation/demonstration of learning, but not necessarily both in the same project. For example, in a recent project, students had a choice of characters from a book to an create a glog that portrayed a page from the character’s imagined scrapbook. In an earlier project, groups all had to represent seven cultural universals in their utopia, but had a choice of forms/genres (comic, recipe, postcard, journal entry, etc).

Iyengar noted that leaders don’t give people the choices that they would prefer, but the choices that the people themselves want. For me, this underscored the importance of getting feedback from students on the things which are important to them and the areas in which offering them choice has the greatest likelihood of helping them feel empowered.

What choices are you willing to let students make? What are your concerns or hesitations in giving choice?

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