Is choice really a good thing?

Daniel Hamilton reflects on the benefits of freedom of choice for pupils and teachers.

Daniel Hamilton, Maths Teacher, Glasgow City Council

Along with the four capacities and the ten dimensions of excellence are the seven principles for curriculum design. Most of them are pretty obvious – who would ever disagree with Coherence, Relevance or Progression? Challenge and enjoyment is an interesting one, as I’ve heard no other country has a curriculum that explicitly includes enjoyment. Then there is Breadth and Depth, which begs the question of what gets left out when you try to explore things both broadly and deeply. The last one is Personalisation and choice, which is also rather obviously a good thing – or so I thought. But lately I’ve been reflecting (the new word for thinking) on whether or not choice really is a good thing. Let me explain.

The benefits of choice

Everyone always says they want more choice. As an example, during the early days of CfE pupils, parents and teachers all responded to consultation by saying that they wanted to have more input into the new curricular design, and wanted a curriculum with more freedom in it. And, in some situations, there is a real benefit to having more choice.

There’s a famous piece of research from the 1970s about nursing home residents (Langer and Rodin, 1976, “The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged”), where one group of residents was told to rely on the staff for help and another group was given more choice in making decisions that affected them, for example being allowed to pick their own plants and being responsible for looking after them. This second group was found to be more active and happier, and even lived significantly longer.

Choice versus routine?

The analogue in schools is giving pupils more choice. I do agree with giving pupils increased responsibility as they get older, and a wider choice of subjects, but in general I think I disagree with greater choice in the classroom. Although children in any class would undoubtedly claim they want more freedom in their lessons, often what helps them most is routine, which can be the opposite of choice. A tightly controlled lesson takes away the stress of uncertainty, and everyone knows what’s expected of them.

As a new teacher I don’t yet have a lot of routine. I’ve varied how I start my lessons, dropping then reintroducing Learning Intentions, Success Criteria and Homework Diaries. I’ve varied how I finish my lessons, with different types of plenary or no plenary at all. I’ve varied how I teach each topic, how I give out and collect homework, how I keep the classroom tidy and most importantly how I deal with missing pencils. This lack of routine is confusing to the pupils, but I think it’s inevitable as I find my own style. It’s healthy for me to try different things, and reflect on them afterwards.

Why limit pupil choice?

Good teachers that I’ve observed give the pupils no choice about their behaviour, and then it doesn’t even occur to the pupil to misbehave. Similarly, teaching points are delivered as this-is-the-way-we-do-it, and that means everyone understands what to do and is happy to do it. Of course there’s still scope for creativity, but in general it’s the routine of the class that keeps it working well, and the pupils come to enjoy this routine.

A good example of the detrimental value of choice is study leave. Pupils are outside the school and so have freedom about what and when to revise. Most find this very difficult, unless they have parents who were successful at school and can help direct them. I think what pupils need is more directed guidance about revision, and less choice in the matter.

Choice for teachers

I’ve argued against choice for pupils, but I am in favour of teachers having the choice about how they teach their subject. I think this situation is fundamentally different. A pupil is going through a course for the first time; an experienced teacher is an expert in the topic and knows better than the pupil what’s best for them. I don’t believe in a single ‘best practice’ that each lesson should conform to, instead it should vary from school to school, subject to subject and class to class.

The CfE guidance does actually promise more freedom for schools in “teaching and learning approaches”, but that doesn’t seem to have happened so far. According to the thought provoking TES article “Original thinkers? We don’t want your sort”, if you don’t teach in the prescribed way you are less likely to hold on to your job. Or, from a probationer’s perspective, less likely to get a job in the first place. I hope this is only temporary, and after schools relax following their next inspection the benefits of CfE will come through.

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Read other blog entries from Daniel:

Read the TES article, "Original thinkers? We don’t want your sort"