Book Review: Choice Theory in the Classroom

Choice Theory in the ClassroomA week before I went on Spring Break, my principal came in to my room and asked if I had heard of William Glasser (I had), and if I'd read his book, Choice Theory in the Classroom (I had not). She asked if I'd like to read it and at some point talk with her about what I thought about Glasser's ideas on classroom management described in the book. "Sure," I said, "though I probably won't get around to opening it until the middle of Spring Break." Now on the Thursday of my Spring Break week, I've finished and want to get down a few thoughts I had about the book while they're still fresh.

The tl;dr review

Glasser suggests that having students work on meaningful tasks in well-defined groups is an improvement over lecture-based, kill-and-drill, individual work. However, his reasoning as to why this is true border on pseudoscience and his conclusions come across as being obvious and mundane.

The full review

At the outset I was pretty skeptical of what the book would include. The book was pitched to me as being primarily about classroom management and my experience with classroom management books hasn't been all that great. However, after reading the first chapter, in which Glasser convincingly outlines the primary problem he's trying to address (engaging the 50% of students1 who aren't engaged in class), I realized I had probably too harshly prejudged the content of the book.

Except...well...then there were chapters 2 - 7. I found these chapters especially frustrating because I agreed with the main point Glasser was trying to make, but he seemed to rely heavily on poor, over-reaching, unnecessary, and factually questionable evidence to get there. He should've just said:

Students want to have at least some control over their experiences while at school (both learning and social), but the traditional classroom robs them of almost all control. As a result students often disengage in learning and seek to exert control over their school lives in whatever way they can- often in ways that disrupt the learning environment. Students should instead be given more meaningful work that can be done in groups with the teacher serving as a facilitator instead of a controlling dictator.

That was his main point- and I think it's a good point- but instead he spent six chapters and 86 pages trying to make his case using slippery slope examples (evidently students who wanted to exert control over their lives quickly descend into illegal drug use), direct analogies to schools as factories2 and plenty of questionable science:

  • We have 5 basic needs that are genetically ingrained: 1) Survival, 2) Belonging and love, 3) Gaining power, 4) Gaining freedom, and 5) Having fun,
  • Migraines are caused when people choose negative behaviors that then affect our physiology,
  • Drugs for depression and ADHD are unnecessary, people just need to choose positive behaviors to fix these.
So, I agree with Glasser's main point, but disagree with how he gets there. Is this a problem? Yeah, I think it is. Even though I agree with his conclusion, I'm not sure I trust Glasser to address the conclusion based on the tortured path he took to arrive there.
After repeatedly3 mentioning that he'd explain how Choice Theory solves the problem of student disengagement in Chapter 8, I was pretty excited once I actually reached Chapter 8. I would finally find out what he was promoting! Without further ado, let me spoil it for you. What does Glasser's Choice Theory look like in the classroom?
  1. Have students work in mixed-ability groups (what he called learning-teams) of 2 - 5.
  2. Give the learning-teams interesting & relevant problems or projects to complete.
  3. Assign specific roles for each student in the learning-team.
  4. Make sure students are accountable for both their individual work and the collective group work.
  5. The teacher should serve as a facilitator and mentor who works with students instead of dictating at students.
OK, so these aren't bad things. These are even good things. Yes, having students work in groups on an interesting project with well-defined roles and clear expectations is much preferable to lectures and worksheets. However, Glasser's tone conveys a sense that this is a wholly original idea that he (along with a couple other contemporary colleagues) have just recently made. Choice Theory in the Classroom was published 27 years ago, and at first blush I was giving it a pass because there has been a concerted push to make secondary education more student-centric since 1986. But then I was recalling a piece on education and schooling that I'd read awhile ago, where the author of the piece says:
I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative. [...]
I believe that [a child's] interests are neither to be humored nor repressed. To repress interest is to substitute the adult for the child, and so to weaken intellectual curiosity and alertness, to suppress initiative, and to deaden interest. To humor the interests is to substitute the transient for the permanent. The interest is always the sign of some power below; the important thing is to discover this power. To humor the interest is to fail to penetrate below the surface and its sure result is to substitute caprice and whim for genuine interest.
Surely the author of the above piece must have drawn on Glasser's groundbreaking work? Not so much. Those are excerpts from John Dewey's "My Pedagogic Creed," writing in 1897. While I don't need Glasser to specifically name-check Dewey, it does concern me that while writing a substantial piece on education reform Glasser seems to have missed 99 years of other people's work in the area he's specifically addressing.
Choice Theory in the Classroom isn't a bad book, it just comes off feeling extremely dated and somewhat obvious in its conclusions- which is notable because John Dewey's work, written over 110 years ago, still feels modern.4

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  1. Glasser cites this "50% of students aren't working" in class fact over and over. While I agree that a lack of student engagement is a primary problem in the classroom it wouldn't have killed him to throw some citations at this. Instead it came off as a number he drived anecdotally from observing a few classrooms and talking to a few teachers.  (back)
  2. including nearly 10 pages where he uses an LA Times article on the difference between Japanese and American car assembly factories to "help" make his point.  (back)
  3. I didn't keep an accurate count, but I'd bet he mentioned how he'd explain everything in Chapter 8 around ten times.   (back)
  4. I mean, "I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living," is an amazingly challenging statement even today.  (back)
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