Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Choice Paradox


Professor Renata Salecl, a Slovenian philosopher, sociologist and legal theorist, raises an interesting perspective on the topic of choice. She highlights that the provision of rights and choice are generally thought to equate to social change. Apparently this may not be  necessarily true. Salecl points out that if we are overwhelmed with a raft of choices (think of being in the supermarket trying to decide which cheese to buy) then feelings of anxiety can arise and we can even become frozen in indecisiveness. How does this effect society? Salecl uses the analogy of a diner at a restaurant trying to decide on which bottle of wine to buy. They don't want to choose the lowest priced bottle in case people think they're cheap. They also don't want to choose the most expensive bottle for the fear of people thinking that they're showing off. The result is that we generally choose something 'in the middle' to appease society and the anxiety in choice.

Choice provokes anxiety in a number of ways:
  • We never make individual choices. That is, we don't make choices separate or outside of society. We choose what other people are choosing. We do this because we ask ourselves 'how will others regard us in regards to our choice?' Choice is a very social matter.
  • We try to make an ideal choice. For example, we are constantly switching mobile phone providers in order to find the best deal. This results in a certain level of constant dissatisfaction.
  • Choice always involves a loss. When you make a choice then you immediately lose the possibility of having chosen the other option. Dealing with loss is something that can provoke anxiety.
  • Another layer of anxiety comes in the form of ideology. The ideology of choice forces us to perceive ourselves as being guilty for the failures in our life.
So Salecl asks whether the ideology of choice actually prevents social change? Her opinion is that the ideology of choice actually makes us criticise ourselves rather than the society we live in, therefore inhibiting social change.

This got me thinking about how the ideology of choice applies to education. I've titled this post 'the choice paradox' because myself, and many other educators, encourage the availability of choice for our students. We give our students choice in the tools they use, the  topics they inquire into and the people they work with. This is because we believe in that every student learns in different ways, one size does not fit all, and everyone has a variety of needs. By offering our students these choices we must be giving them the best opportunities to develop and show their understanding. But what if these choices that we offer are actually working against the things that we think they are promoting?

Peter Dudley, in Assessment in Action in the Primary School highlights the factors that effective primary schools offer their students. They include motivation; high expectations and self-esteem; a belief that learning is important; literacy and numeracy skills; the ability to organise and learn independently; the confidence to take risks in learning and view mistakes as a necessary part of the learning process. Dudley highlights the interesting point that many of these factors relate not to cognitive processes but to how learners feel about themselves. He points out that these 'affective factors are vital to the process of learning and achievement'.

Is it possible that by offering our students too much choice that we may be initiating some of the factors that Salecl says provokes anxiety? Furthermore, do anxious students exhibit many (or any) of Dudley's behaviours listed above? How much choice should we be offering to our students? For me, the jury is out on this one until I can read some more about it but it has certainly given me something to think about.