Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Choice Theory and Nussbaum

So today I started volunteering (for the month) at my mom's middle school. She's an 8th grade math teacher, and this year she's decided to implement something called Choice Theory. You can find more out about it here at her blog. I witnessed the students first debriefing in Choice Theory, and below I've copied what I wrote for my mom's blog about what happened. The reason I'm including this because it seemed to me to be strikingly similar to what Nussbaum has to say (and other political philosophers) about flourishing. The approach with Choice Theory is more stoic, but overall the needs are quite familiar to Nussbaums list (life, bodily health/integrity, etc). I'm not in psych or education, but what I witnessed today was certainly familiar. Anyway, here's what I wrote about today (in the voice of a teacher, but really I was just a bystander):

Today was our first day with the 8th graders, and to start the year off we gave them their first lesson in Choice Theory. We started by having them play the triangle game during the 8th grade bonding time. The goal of the game was to pick two other people (who you aren't friends with) and --without letting them know that you've picked them-- position yourself in such a way that the three of you form an equilateral triangle. The game was a bit of a bust, because the students formed their triangles by talking and signaling to their friends. If done correctly, the triangles wouldn't be obvious, and you wouldn't know if someone else had formed a triangle with you in it. Instead we saw a bunch of mini-triangles comprised mainly of friends, that had clearly been organized amongst themselves. Down further I'll explain what the game was intended to teach, and I'll explain how the students proved our point even though they didn't complete it correctly.

Next we had them fill out index cards.
1. In the upper right corner they wrote a list of 3 people: one older, one younger, and one peer. These are people who have impacted their life in some meaningful way.
2. In the upper left corner they wrote a list of 3 things they would rather do today if they didn't have to come to school and money wasn't an option.
3. In the bottom left corner, they wrote 3 things they are good at or accomplishments they've made.
4. In the bottom right corner they filled out one rule they think everyone should have to follow (always), one rule that they think is really stupid, and one pet peeve.

Next we asked the students who, in the whole universe, they have the power to control (in thought, action, emotion, etc). Some said siblings and pets, but after a short discussion they all agreed that the only person they truly have control over is themselves. We told them that when they talk out of turn (which they were doing quite a bit of) it is irritating to us but there is nothing we can do to make them stop. They must stop themselves and exercise self-control. We also told them that all behavior is purposeful, and if they chose to sit and listen quietly, they were making that choice. If they choice to not listen and think "whoa, I wish they'd shut up," they were purposefully choosing to think and feel that. If someone makes you upset, you choose to be upset. We all try to control other people, but we can't. We can only control ourselves. We can try to coercive, manipulate, or persuade them, but ultimately each person must choose their own behavior.

This brings me back to the triangle game. The goal was to end up with a win-win situation where everyone formed their triangles without trying to control the other people that formed it. Had they done it properly, they would have shown the goal that Choice Theory works towards. However, they played the game by controlling other people, which showed one of their basic needs. At school, to succeed, you have to be right. They all wanted to be right, to get the game right, so they controlled each other to accomplish that. The need they were satisfying was their need to have power. Below I'll outline the four basic needs (taking survival for granted as a basic need), and how they fit into the index card activity.

The first need is love and belonging. The people in #1 represent those people who they love and value as friends or family. Everyone needs to be loved and feel belonged. Our goal this year is to make sure that every student feels like they are loved and like they belong. The second need is fun. The activities in #2 represent every one's need to have fun. Fun can be any activity that they enjoy, which can (and often) includes learning. One of our other goals is to make the learning process fun, so that they'll enjoy their time at school. The third need power. The positive form of power is power within. When you succeed or accomplish a goal, you feel power within yourself. That's a positive form of power. We want our students to learn how to tap their power within to succeed in the classroom. The other form of power that is not constructive is power over. When you try to control people other than yourself, you are using this form of power. We want to minimize the need people feel to have power over (including the teachers). The last need is freedom, which is represented by corner #4. Everyone wants a certain degree of freedom, and we need to determine what we want to be free to do and what boundaries we want other people to respect.

The overall aim of this year is to find a compromise between the students and the teachers. We want to have a win-win school year. That may mean that we need to allow more talk time in class or allow them to listen to their ipods during work time. At the same time, they will compromise by respecting our classrooms and behaving calmly. Ultimately, the choice is up to the individual. We want to teach the students to take responsibility for their actions. The atmosphere we will have this year will be determined by each and every student in our classes. If we can teach them how to choose wisely, then everyone will win. Let the year begin!

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