One of the really difficult things about giving students meaningful choices is that they will sometimes make horrible ones. This isn’t a school problem, so much, as it is a democracy problem. And I’ve met plenty of people who don’t feel that all adults are able to make good choices, either.
People don’t always make the choices that we want them to. But honoring freedom and liberty means that we allow them to make bad choices. And we don’t stop folks from making choices just because we wish they would’ve made different ones.
I was reminded of this today as I was listening to a teacher lamenting the fact that some of his students sometimes don’t complete their schoolwork. In class or at home. They just choose not to do the work. It’s a struggle to figure out sometimes when to acknowledge and when to struggle with doing something about that.
There’s a school of thought in education that suggests we cannot allow a student to make the choice to not do things, to choose to fail. This gets expressed in plenty of ways, but one of my least favorite of those is the ways that lock students into situations (lessons, projects, readings, or even devices) over which they have no meaningful control.
I don’t find myself aligned with that school of thought so much. Real choices mean real consequences – but also they mean that we can’t undo the deal of every bad choice a student <ahem> chooses to make.
I noticed tonight that an Alfie Kohn essay I fawned over when I read it in English Journal four years ago was recently re-posted on the Answer Sheet. The whole thing is worth your time (and related to the above), but here’s a choice bit:
The sad irony is that as children grow older and become more capable of making decisions, they’re given less opportunity to do so in schools. In some respects, teenagers actually have less to say about their learning – and about the particulars of how they’ll spend their time in school each day — than do kindergarteners. Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society.
When parents ask, “What did you do in school today?”, kids often respond, “Nothing.” Howard Gardner pointed out that they’re probably right, because “typically school is done to students.” This sort of enforced passivity is particularly characteristic of classrooms where students are excluded from any role in shaping the curriculum, where they’re on the receiving end of lectures and questions, assignments and assessments. One result is a conspicuous absence of critical, creative thinking – something that (irony alert!) the most controlling teachers are likely to blame on the students themselves, who are said to be irresponsible, unmotivated, apathetic, immature, and so on. But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.
Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out. Again, it takes some courage to face the fact that these responses are related to what we’re doing, or not doing. And the same is true of my larger point in this essay: A lack of opportunity to make decisions may well manifest itself in a lack of interest in reading and writing. Were that our goal, our single best strategy might be to run a traditional teacher-centered, teacher–directed classroom.
If you only let1 students make choices where the stakes are irrelevant and the options are, too, then you’re not really in the choice business, are you?
- This notion of permission is tricky, too, isn’t it? Are we really the folks who control whether or not choice can occur in our classrooms? I’m not so sure about that. [↩]