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.
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?