They Said IT: The Paradox of Choice

3/29/2012 By: Dean Shareski

One of my favorite TED talks is Barry Schwartz’ “The Paradox of Choice.” Schwartz makes the point that choice isn’t always a good thing and that at some point too many choices are as bad as no choice at all.

Thinking about the big challenge of changing the learning landscape in our schools is something that keeps many of us working tirelessly and often being frustrated with the results. Whether it’s a lack of resources, time, commitment or understanding, major barriers continue to exist that has meaningful change held at bay.

Research is pretty clear about the importance of choice, which leads to engagement, which leads to learning. I’m not sure I’ve seen any significant change happen when professionals aren’t given a choice. However in cultures that choose efficiency over emotion, often choice isn’t seen as essential and professionals get told what to do. What usually happens is that no matter what is told, professionals go back to their classrooms and do what they think is right regardless. We’ve been playing this game in education for a long time.

In his book, Evocative Coaching, Bob Tschannen-Moran claims that teachers do not resist making changes; they resist people who try to make them change. Once coaches abandon the role of change agent, we can build trust and rapport and engage teachers in nonjudgmental conversations about their experiences, feelings, needs, ambitions, and goals.

What’s really frustrating about that statement is that, while it’s true, it takes a long time and in the end, there’s no guarantee it will turn out the way leaders hope. Real change happens because we find strength and support to move forward with ideas we’ve adopted. Change agents might be useful to plant a seed, but that’s not the real change. Real change requires an investment in time to develop and nurture supportive relationships.

No amount of instruction or PD will matter unless a teacher wants to change. What we’re currently witnessing is pockets of change— teachers who are embracing what it means to learn today and are willing to make adjustments in their practice to make learning better for their students. I doubt if any of these teachers were forced to change. They had choice.

That’s both a great thing but also a frustrating thing. You may never see the change you’re so invested in if you allow teachers a choice. Unless we strip teachers from their professional status, we’re going to have to face the dilemma of the paradox of choice. We can change curriculum and design environments and schedules that promote certain types of learning, but as long we consider teachers professionals, they will operate as autonomous individuals. Create a culture where reflective and innovative practice is prized, but allow teachers to make the choice that’s owed to them.

I have no answers. I’m going to continue to plant seeds and when and where I can, build the relationships and support for those who have chosen to make a change.

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