Pathway-ED: Choices, choices everywhere and not much time to think

Stuart Middleton
24 March 2011

There is some irony that the word “choice” has won a firm place in the lexicon of youth as a word of approbation. For instance “It was choice” suggests that whatever is being referred to is positive and perhaps even at the top of whatever scale of pleasure it is appropriate. The word “Choice!” on its own is alongside others such as “fabulous”, “wonderful” and the loathsome and overused “awesome” as a declaration of satisfaction, joy, perhaps even ecstasy.

The irony is that choice carries with it risk. In education we suggest that choice comes with maturity and so we characterise the early years (well, the first ten years actually) as ones in which there is a “compulsory curriculum “within the “compulsory education” requirements which extend to age 16 years and even to age 18 years in education systems that can’t think of anything else to do in response to issues other than raise the school leaving age!

I do not wish to distract myself into a discussion of school leaving ages but in passing it is worth noting that “compulsory” as a word has little force in keeping students at school and that compulsory school leaving ages are a nonsense which are simply a hangover over from the slow process of making education available to increasingly older students.

And within the compulsory school years there is a huge amount of choice. Attendance at school despite the clear intention of the law is a matter of choice for many young people. That this is will have an impact on their lives (either positive or negative) does not dawn on those who choose not to attend school.

When at school, much behaviour is a matter of choice. Doing what you are told when you are told to do it is a basic choice that is increasingly passed from the hands of the teacher into the hands of the students as they progress through the system and sometimes with dire consequences when poor choices are made. There is scope within “option structures” in the secondary school for students to make choices and the manner in which these are made is often arbitrary and not with due regard to the consequences.

So we rely very much on the ability of students to make good choices with very little evidence that we help them to develop the skills and processes required to ensure that choices made are ones that will benefit them. Of course they quite quickly find out about the poor decisions when these impact negatively on the needs of others – behaviour, uniform, safety, abuse and so on – but they carry the burden of poor choices made with regard to subject choices on their own shoulders. Students who can be helped in making choices by parents and caregivers are greatly advantaged.

The fact that the impacts of choices on the individual are very much an indication of the quality of choices made is an understanding that develops very slowly. In some adults it develops only after serious consequences (e.g. driving while drunk) and in others (e.g. those with mental health issues) perhaps never at all.

Do we need a set of training wheels attached to choices made by students? Well one set of wheels is certainly appropriate advice and guidance at all ages and flexibility in allowing some changes of choices once made. Neither of these is easy in institutions with large numbers of students often dealt with in groups.

Are post-secondary students immune from the issues of choices and decision making? I would have thought not. Requisites for entry into courses and programmes attempt to define the gates through which they should be capable of passing but they in themselves cannot give a very clear glimpse of the demands awaiting the students on the other side. Full realisation of the implications of choices made will only unfold during the early parts of the programme. And is it then too late to change the choice? Usually, failure and disengagement and a second start are the options when choices turn out to be wrong.

So we have an education system that allows a considerable amount of choice. Would a more constrained system achieve better results? Of course even to suggest this is an anathema to many, especially those who have made good choices that have turned out well. That’s fine but surely choice brings with it a responsibility on those who allow it to see that students are equipped, informed and helped to consider the options and range of choices and arrive at ones that are best for them.

The old saying about horses and water probably means something. There is a high likelihood that a horse that is thirsty will drink clean water. Does this offer us a clue about choice making in education?

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