Give them the choice?

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One issue at the heart of the education debate is the role of student choice. On one side are those who value it for its own sake. They tend to elevate the role of play in the early years – because children make their own choices when playing – and they argue for student-led projects in later schooling. As John Dewey wrote in 1938:

“There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active co-operation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.”

For Dewey, education had to be based upon experience and therefore:

“Anything which can be called a study, whether arithmetic, history or geography, or one of the natural sciences, must be derived from materials which at the outset fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience.”

Why the insistence upon choice and learning through experience? It is, as Dewey explained in 1916, because learning is a natural process:

“To realize what an experience, or empirical situation, means, we have to call to mind the sort of situation that presents itself outside of school; the sort of occupations that interest and engage activity in ordinary life. And careful inspection of methods which are permanently successful in formal education, whether in arithmetic or learning to read, or studying geography, or learning physics or a foreign language, will reveal that they depend for their efficiency upon the fact that they go back to the type of the situation which causes reflection out of school in ordinary life. They give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.”

This is a fundamental belief that drives much of what we read today about project-based learning, inquiry learning or any other revolutionary pedagogy. The fact that these have been revolutionary since at least the time of John Dewey should give us pause for thought.

The other reason to pause is that we now have strong evidence that choice is not necessarily a good thing for learning. It can even ‘kill’ learning. There are  number of plausible reasons for why this may be the case. Firstly, by definition, novices lack knowledge of the subject so asking them to make a decision on where to go next is a little like asking them to drive around an unfamiliar town with the satellite navigation switched off. They may make some wonderful discoveries but they are also likely to drive up a few blind alleys and miss important landmarks. It’s far better to be guided by someone who knows the town well.

Another problem with choice is that learners seem to prefer the wrong kinds of tasks. For instance, Richard Clark found that more advanced students preferred lectures whereas less advanced students preferred more open-ended learning environments, and yet they learned best if placed in conditions opposite to their preferences.

There are now educational psychologists who question the very premise of natural learning. David Geary has put forward the idea that there are biologically primary and biologically secondary learning objectives. The former are things that we have evolved to learn, like speaking or learning social conventions. The latter require far more effort because they involve co-opting mental systems that evolved for other purposes. Academic learning, such as learning to read or write, falls into this category and therefore is, quite literally, unnatural. Which explains why attempting to teach reading by reading to kids and surrounding them with a print rich environment doesn’t work very well.

Clearly, we want students to eventually make choices themselves and there needs to be scope within a rich education for this to happen. However, the time for choice is not at the outset of learning new content, as Dewey implies. Instead, we need to apply a model of structured release where a teacher gradually, and strategically, gives control to the students.

Whether you approve of John Dewey describing competing educational philosophies as ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ is moot. We still need to acknowledge that these different sets of ideas exist, imply different approaches to teaching and are, to a greater or lesser extent, a part of the beliefs of teachers and everyone else involved in education. Moreover, we need to acknowledge the substantial evidence that the philosophy of natural learning, learning through experience and offering student choice, is not supported by the evidence that we now possess.


4 thoughts on “Give them the choice?

  1. Chester Draws says:


    So I went through many of the papers at that link. Fascinating stuff.

    I ignored those relating to college level, because you cannot use the self-direction of adults to infer the self-direction of children. I ignored those that didn’t relate to learning but to anxiety etc.

    Those others I read did not leave me convinced that allowing students wide choice in the subjects and topics to study benefits learning.

    For example, Garon-Carrier et al states in the conclusion

    “achievement in mathematics was found to systematically predict later intrinsic motivation in mathematics over time. However, there was no evidence for the reverse; intrinsic motivation for mathematics did not predict later (or changes in) achievement in mathematics.”

    It’s not choice then that motivates students, it’s appropriate choices of topics and good teaching of them that generate motivation. (Indeed, how could a student know what topics are appropriate for them to choose to study before they have studied them?)

    Hagge & Chatzisarantis don’t say much about choice, but do say

    Research has revealed that teachers are able to foster higher levels of autonomous motivation and greater behavioral persistence by providing instruction and feedback that focuses on self-directed learning and by giving students choice over, and a rationale for, their actions

    Which is support for choice in actions, not wider direction of learning.

    Amoura et al don’t discuss choice of direction or topic at all

    In concrete terms, the autonomy-supportive style is operationalized through behaviors such as a) nurturing inner motivational sources, b) providing rationales, c) relying on noncontrolling and informational language, d) displaying patience, and e) acknowledging
    and accepting expressions of negative affect.

    So allowing autonomy in personal relationships, not related to subject choice.

    The paradoxical effect of controlling context on intrinsic motivation in another activity by Radel defines autonomy-supportive with:

    Contexts that are not autonomy supportive or low in autonomy support are contexts that do not provide choice, that do not provide rationale when choice is limited or contexts that generally do not support volitional actions or initiatives

    So limiting autonomy without rationale is bad. However, I would expect teachers to explain why we teach the material we teach, as a basic courtesy if nothing else. I certainly explain to students what the consequences of not following my choice of topic is (generally as they attempt to avoid doing algebra).

    I might note that these authors found that controlling autonomy could lead to increased motivation.

    Even if the paradoxical effect of controlling contexts that we report herein suggests that controlling events could potentially lead to positive outcomes, this should be interpreted with

    It’s nice to see people report negative effects.

    I’m not seeing much there that relates to allowing children choice over the direction of their learning. They seem to suggest that autonomy in personal relationships and the manner of learning is mostly a good thing — but I’m not sure anyone disputes that.

  2. Nicola Smith says:

    This is really interesting. I think you could argue that there is a link between Geary’s ideas and the structure of the EYFS in England. So the prime areas of learning relate to biologically primary learning and the specific areas of learning relate to biologically secondary learning. So then you could argue for example, that children can build on physical development (a prime area) through play but need direct instruction to learning to read and write (a specific area). The question is, at what age do you switch the emphasis?

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