Laura Gibbs

More about Sheena Iyengar's (brilliant!!!) book

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Oct 1, 2017

I wrote a post last week about student choice as a course design principle, and I wanted to follow up on that today. In that post I said: I think it's wonderful that Instructure brought the awesome Sheena Iyengar to speak at InstructureCon (I read her book and loved it), but it would be even better if Instructure listened to what she said and respected student choice as an important element of course design.


It worries me that Canvas's commitment to simplicity can lead to oversimplification, which is not good for learning. (I'm a big believer in Carol Dweck's notion of making challenge the new comfort zone, Vygotsky's ZPD, etc.). In my experience, cognitive underload is a more clear and present danger than cognitive overload. Boredom, lack of engagement, lack of motivation, etc. etc. are the real problems I am struggling with. And one of the best strategies I have for combating boredom et al. is STUDENT CHOICE.


So, naturally I was very interested to read Iyengar's book, The Art of Choosing ... but I had no idea how much it would expand my understanding of choice; here are my Kindle highlights.


Let me start with a study I mentioned briefly in the previous post; this is an early study of hers that showed teacher-choice was the least motivating of the three learning conditions she tested: student-choice, mother-choice, teacher-choice. Among Anglo students, student-choice was the most motivating condition ("Anglo American children who were allowed to choose their own anagrams and markers solved four times as many anagrams as when Ms. Smith made their choices for them, and two and a half times more than when their mothers supposedly chose for them"), while for the Asian-American students, mother-choice was the most motivating ("the Asian American children performed best and were most motivated when they believed their mothers had chosen for them. These children solved 30 percent more anagrams than those who were allowed to choose their materials themselves, and twice as many anagrams as children who were assigned materials by Ms. Smith"). For both groups of students, though, teacher-choice was the least motivating condition. Yet teacher-choice is the dominant course design feature across the board in both K-12 and higher ed: teachers make the choices (what to read, what to study, what to write, etc.), instead of creating courses based on supporting and facilitating student choice.


Iyengar's book then goes into great detail about just it means to have a "choice" (real choice, free choice, meaningful choice), and I would really recommend that everybody read it. She is a great writer, and the narrative of her research is really compelling as she shows from one experiment to the next how she is driven by yet more subtle questions about choice. Each experiment answers some questions, but raises more questions in turn, and she is very attentive to cultural differences (something sadly lacking in a lot of education research), as you can see already in that early study above.


And, I am pleased to say, Iyengar's book was really transformative for me: I had previously looked at student choice as a practical strategy for motivating students; I wanted the students to choose what to read and what to write about because I hoped in that way they would be more engaged and would produce better work. More choice, better work, more learning... which would mean I could feel good about the job I was doing as a teacher. End of story.


But after reading Iyengar's book, I see things differently. I still know that choice is a very powerful strategy for motivating students (15 years of teaching tells me so), but Iyengar got me to see the question of choice as something of far greater importance, something existential, extending far beyond the classroom. And it is also something complex and even paradoxical, not straightforward or simple at all:

To be ourselves while remaining adaptable, we must either justify a decision to change as being consistent with our identity, or we must acknowledge that our identity itself is malleable but no less authentic for it. [...] One might say that we are trying to arrive at a state of homeostasis through a feedback loop between identity and choice.

That was a WOW moment for me in reading her book, identifying this back-and-forth between identity and choice and how there is a feedback loop there, which is also the source of the paradox: do I make my choices because of who I am? or am I who I am because of my choices? Or .... (queue Twilight Zone music) ... is it paradoxically both at once?


Much of Iyengar's book is taken up with this interplay of identity and choice, and also with the question of how HAPPINESS emerges through that interplay of identity and choice, and also the tension between constraint and creativity. Iyengar ends up being a strong advocate for choice, and that advocacy is based on a really deep understanding of people's choices as she has documented them in so many different experiments with so many different people from different cultures in different contexts.


Even more importantly: Iyengar is very away of the Pollyanna trap into which I think many teachers fall (I know I do), acting as if the choices we can offer in our classrooms can somehow compensate for the world of injustice in which we live:

At its best, choice is a means by which we can resist the people and the systems that seek to exert control over us. But choice itself can become oppressive when we insist that it is equally available to all. It can become an excuse for ignoring inequities that stem from gender or class or ethnic differences, for example, because one can blithely say, “Oh, but they had a choice! [...] As we saw in the very first chapter, the promise of choice, the language of choice, and even the mere illusion of choice have the power to motivate and uplift us. We should not, however, take this to mean that faith, hope, and rhetoric alone are sufficient.


So, with that incredibly important caveat in mind (and I've written elsewhere here about designing-for-equity), I want to close this post with a really cool exercise that Iyengar recommends for discovering motivation, the real intrinsic motivation, the motivation that is both your identity and your choice:

Try this for yourself. Write three versions of the story of your life (or a particular period in your life), looking in turn through the lenses of destiny, chance, and choice. [...] Which of these versions is most motivating for you? Which one encourages you to try harder, push further, reach higher? Which emphasizes that you have the power to go from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow?

And here's something really cool you will see when you read the book: Iyengar starts the book with three such narratives about her own life: this woman practices what she preaches! 


I read the book too late in the summer to be able to weave these ideas into my classes, but next summer I want to build in a new layer of writing based on this idea of "my story" (or stories!). My classes are already centered on storytelling, and I would really like to help my students find connections between their writing choices in the class and the life choices that they are making, seeing how all of those stories (the real ones and the fictional ones) emerge from that interplay of creativity and constraint.


Anyway, this post is already way too long... there is so much more that I would say, but if I have made you curious to go read the book, then I will consider this post a success. Thank you for reading! :-)


And here is Sheena Iyengar is at InstructureCon via Twitter, whoo-hoo!


picture of Iyengar presenting at InstructureCon