What I think about when I think about choice

Choice (n.) ‘an act of choosing; a decision’ also ‘the right to choose; the possibility of choosing’ and ‘a person or thing that has been chosen or can be chosen’

Choice (adj.) ‘of high quality’

(Cambridge Dictionary)

This month, I’ve chosen to post two separate thoughts on the idea of ‘choice(s)’:

  1. When I was in primary school, along with the morning register, we would state our lunch plans for the day: cinio poeth (hot lunch), brechdanau (sandwiches aka packed lunch) or dewis (choice). If you selected cinio poeth you joined the main lunch queue in the dining hall, with a large serving area providing classic school lunches of the 90s. If you chose dewis, however, you would join the queue for “the hatch” which was a small serving window from the kitchen where you could then choose between a hot dogs and burgers served in buns; quick, easy to eat, and popular with the boys who wanted to eat as rapidly as possible and then play football for as much of the lunch hour as possible. At the time, I really didn’t understand why the options were “hot lunch” or “choice”. It’s only now that I realise that “choice” gave the option of two options, whereas the “hot lunch” was that day’s only possibility. If you didn’t like fish pie, for example, you could choose a burger at that small hatch. It’s also now that I realise that there were effectively two choices: between cinio and dewis and then between sausages and burgers if you chose dewis. It was an early lesson, that I didn’t realise until two decades later, that each choice can lead to more choices.
  2. Choice can be a powerful tool in the classroom. When we give students choices we recognise their agency as individuals, empower them to make decisions, and give them ownership over their learning process. These results, however, come with caveats; simply giving students choice doesn’t necessarily result in these outcomes. Firstly, the choices they are given all need to lead to the intended learning outcomes. Secondly, students need to have the capacity to discriminate between the options available to them. Finally, students shouldn’t be able to choose an easier route, that doesn’t present them with challenge. Reading programmes are a great example of literacy activities that can be empowering and value students’ agency. However, taking a group of kids to a library and letting them loose to find a book that interests them is like giving me €50 to invest in the stock market. Choice and personal agency is not diminished if guided by expertise. If a stock broker provided me with a list of recommended options, I would still be able to make a personal choice about where to invest my €50, safe in the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t make a disastrous decision. I once worked with a TA who had previously worked in a bakery; she would recall how some parents would bring their children to the counter and ask them what they would like. Their eyes would widen as they mentally ate all of the possible treats available, taking minutes to reach a decision as the queue grew. Other parents would bring children and tell them to choose between two or three options and within seconds, a choice was made.

So when I think about choice, I think about how one choice leads to another: every choice we make is made in a situation which is the result of a previous choice. I think about how while having the freedom and agency to make choices is powerful, having (seemingly) limitless options available can be paralysing.

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