Opinion
Classroom Technology Opinion

Do We Give Students Too Much Choice?

By Brian Field — August 23, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

There is an increased focus on student choice in K-12 education today. This focus has created more student-centered classrooms that use problem-based learning and differentiation of instruction to give students agency in what and how they learn. As a high school teacher, I understand why teachers feel the necessity to cater to all of their students’ strengths by providing opportunities for student choice. But, as schools try to incorporate student-centered initiatives into the classroom, there is often a lack of critical consideration for the potentially negative effects increased choice may have on student learning.

Student choice refers to the opportunity for students to choose the pathway and methodology to accomplish assignments or projects. For example, students would have the opportunity to choose a topic they wish to explore and the approach they use to demonstrate their learning. These initiatives have a place in the classroom and can increase student motivation and creativity, but schools need to consistently question their own practices. As educators, we should not underestimate the importance of evaluating the necessary degree of student choice before we adopt it as a new initiative.

It has been just over a decade since Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, introduced the concept that people experience paralysis of the mind when overloaded with choices. In Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Schwartz discovered during experiments in grocery stores that people were more likely to buy a product when presented with fewer choices. In 2013, Daniel Mochon, an assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University, countered this theory in his own research about the power of single-option aversion—the idea that people are averse to buying a product when there is only one choice available.

BRIC ARCHIVE

The new question now becomes: What degree of choice should we have? Though these studies apply to retail, they have grounds in the field of education regarding student choice. As these studies help to show, the current debate surrounding this classroom strategy is not whether students should have choice, but to what degree student choice is effective.

There are measurable consequences when teachers provide students with endless choices. The common argument is that teachers avoid student choice because they are afraid of turning over control to students. However, the problem is not loss of control for teachers, but the difficulty of directing their attention to each individual student. Student choice can create a wide variety of individual projects with a range of outcomes and varying degrees of progress in classroom learning. Feedback is one of the most important elements in student problem-solving—a necessary component of student choice—but the increased diversity of projects can make it difficult for teachers to provide adequate guidance to each student.

We must begin to debate in our schools the appropriate point where the degree of student choice maximizes student learning."

This reality forces teachers to choose between two options: generalizing the feedback and instruction, which makes this help less applicable to each student; or increasing individualized attention, which becomes shortsighted because of time constraints.

I have learned in my own experiences that effective feedback takes copious amounts of time when all students complete the same assignment—and the greater variety of student choice only increases that time. There needs to be a balance between an appropriate amount of student choice and the ability of the teacher to impart the feedback necessary to reach maximum student growth in a timely manner.

Increasing student choice in the classroom also decreases teacher modeling. Generally, students are encouraged to explore viable outcomes of an essential question or problem on their own by evaluating them through a number of trial-and-error approaches. Trial and error is a valuable problem-solving skill with real-world applications, but it also has its limitations. Utilizing this approach does not teach students how their choices and strategy effect time, resources, and money in the real world. Teachers should instead model for students how to navigate problems with clear planning approaches and execution, rather than resorting to the trial-and-error method more commonly used by students.

In addition, teachers cannot expect that increasing student choice and freedom will automatically improve student learning. Unfortunately, unlimited choice can set students up to fail. Teachers must help their students develop the appropriate skills for how to approach a problem and evaluate success and failure so that students can make more of their own effective choices in the classroom.

Too often, schools accept educational trends and expand them into every facet of teaching practices without evaluating the impact they have on student learning. Teachers, administrators, and students must discuss together the effects of student choice and the ways in which it can both help and harm learning. Education leaders could also use professional-development opportunities to discuss with teachers effective student choice at work in the classroom, but the discussion would also need to extend to teacher open forums. Through such open forums, teachers would have a voice in how this trend can be implemented appropriately in their classrooms.

If leaders at the school, district, and county levels start this discussion, we can move away from the haphazard execution of this trend and, instead, create a learning environment that provides sustainable growth for all students.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Do Students Have Too Much Choice?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Working Smarter, Not Harder with Data
There is a new paradigm shift in K-12 education. Technology and data have leapt forward, advancing in ways that allow educators to better support students while also maximizing their most precious resource – time. The
Content provided by PowerSchool
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Deepen the Reach and Impact of Your Leadership
This webinar offers new and veteran leaders a unique opportunity to listen and interact with four of the most influential educational thinkers in North America. With their expert insights, you will learn the key elements
Content provided by Solution Tree
Science K-12 Essentials Forum Teaching Science Today: Challenges and Solutions
Join this event which will tackle handling controversy in the classroom, and making science education relevant for all students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Classroom Technology Spotlight Spotlight on Interactive Technology
This Spotlight will help you consider what changes are on the horizon with the metaverse, parent privacy concerns, and virtual SEL options.
Classroom Technology Schools Are Battling Tech Fatigue. How Are They Responding?
Blended learning—a mix of face-to-face and online instruction—is declining in popularity, a Christensen Institute survey shows.
2 min read
Conceptual image of an in-person classroom in front of a virtual class
Bet Noire/iStock
Classroom Technology Opinion How Schools Can Stem the Toxic Tide of Technology
Students' relationships, motivation, mood, sleep, and safety—all are at risk, writes researcher Andy Hargreaves.
Andy Hargreaves
5 min read
Illustration of girl using computer
Yulia Sutyagina/iStock/Getty Images Plus<br/>
Classroom Technology The Number One Reason Students Still Lack Internet at Home: Parents Can't Afford It
Many families can't afford the cost of internet connectivity, even if they live in areas that are wired for broadband, a new report shows.
2 min read
Image of a student working on a computer from home.
iStock/Getty