Is too much choice stressing you out?

How much professional freedom do you want?

In my first year of teaching science in a high school, I lived with two French teachers. They worked late most nights making card-sorts and various other kinds of activities. It was clear to me that they were having a tough time. And yet I was not doing the same. Why? Because the science department had a lesson-by-lesson scheme of work which set out all of the activities and had resources to match.

Some science schemes of work were better than others. In time, I was expected to contribute to their development as part of my professional responsibilities and I was given one of the sketchier schemes to work on. I also had a little freedom within the constraints of the program. For instance, I developed a ‘two hamsters carrying a ladder’ analogy for refraction that made its way into future department plans.

One weakness of the schemes that I worked with was a lack of an overarching set of design principles. The only imperative was that the students should somehow be physically active in every lesson. If there was no experiment to conduct then they had to do a ‘pseudo-experiment’ where perhaps different written resources were placed around the room for the students to visit and interact with. I’m not sure why we did this.

I was reflecting on this when I read a post on the AARE blog site by Dr Nicole Mockler of the University of Sydney. It makes the case for the teacher as ‘curriculum worker’ and argues that government agendas – such as the national curriculum – have worked against this. The piece is light on research evidence – apart from a passing reference to Finland – and instead focuses on how the wording of the Australian Curriculum has changed:

“The differences are subtle but the shift from teachers deciding how best to organise learning for students to schools being able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum is not just a semantic one.”

Instead, Mockler’s vision places teachers at the centre of making curriculum decisions:

“The role I am thinking of is where teachers understand curriculum work as a complex process involving prioritisation, translation, and transformation of knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning. It is about understanding curriculum work as a deeply creative and productive process that relies on confidence with and command of content; deep pedagogical expertise; and a good understanding of the learners in question. It is understanding teaching as scholarly work, as intellectual work, as knowledge work.”

I frequently see variations of this argument. Many teachers seem to share this view through a process of enculturation and schools of education are probably a part of this. I remember having discussions with my housemates all those years ago and they were simply incredulous about the way the science department worked. For many teachers, the freedom to choose between a card-sort and a role-play, or to choose to teach concept y before concept x, is fundamental to their professionalism.

Yet this kind of freedom of choice doesn’t seem to define professionalism in any other domain. We don’t hear of surgeons staying up late into the evening in order to make-up new and innovative ways of performing the next day’s surgery. Instead, in surgery, professionalism is seen as being up-to-date with the best methods.

You can see why this difference has occurred. The threat of a patient dying is more immediate than the threat of a lesson going badly. Research into surgery is not simple, but it operates on a shorter time-scale and everyone can agree on the objectives. Education isn’t like that. If I conduct a maths activity that doesn’t appear to lead to the students learning much maths then I can always argue that I have developed their collaborative skills or their resilience or perhaps their problem-solving skills. Who’s to argue?

However, I think teachers pay a huge cost for this sort of autonomy. Yes, we tend to feel stressed when we have no control but we can also be stressed by too much choice. Not only do current practices – where teachers often have to plan all of their own lessons – lead to an unmanageable workload as tired teachers constantly reinvent the wheel but we also have to ask how teachers are making all of these curriculum and pedagogical choices. It’s all very well to argue that different students will have different needs but precisely what strategies do each of these needs imply? After all, students have much more in common in the way that they learn than they have differences.

We also know that humans don’t respond well to unfettered choice. This is why some supermarkets have reduced the number of options available on their shelves after noting the success of Aldi with its famously limited range. It turns out that having too many alternatives available can stress you out. We work better under constrained choices. Presented with lesson planning freedom coupled with too little time, it seems likely that many teachers are able to do little more than choose strategies that ‘satisfice‘ i.e. strategies that meet the minimum requirements rather than those that are optimal.

This situation, backed by the culture in schools and universities, is crazy. It burns-out teachers to little gain. I have written before that education needs to be more like a ratchet – where one professional builds and extends upon the work of another – rather than a constantly spinning wheel.

So, should we adopt the policy of my old science department? Not quite. I think we can do better than that. If you look at the research base then there are a few principles of effective instruction that we can work from. Rosenshine provides a good enough summary to use as a starting-point but schools and departments might select their own set of principles.

We then need a system of review, ideally against assessment data, to ensure that we really are improving the plans over time, as well as opportunities for everyone in the department to feed into the planning; a practical and achievable way to utilise professional expertise.

If schools are not doing this then they are letting their teachers down and are contributing to the teacher workload problem.


8 Comments on “Is too much choice stressing you out?”

  1. Agree with everything as always. Have you got a blog post about the hamsters?!

  2. Stan says:

    Another worthwhile comparision might be to actors. The best of these are admired by all for their talent but they often have no say in the words they have to deliver. Sorry if your Hamlet these are you lines. Yet that doesn’t detract at all from the difficult of their task or how much we admire them for doing it well.

  3. ad says:

    Yes, we tend to feel stressed when we have no control but we can also be stressed by too much choice

    I’m not sure that choice is the problem: people shop at Aldi because it is cheap, not because it has a limited range. I suspect the problem is that teachers lack a clear goal, a clearly defined means of achieving it, and a simple way of demonstrating they ARE achieving it.

    So instead of being under pressure to succeed at something, they face pressure to make it look like they are trying harder than anyone else. Hence the race to exhaustion.

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