In yet another episode of TedTalks synchronicity, immediately after writing the post on Digital Natives and the spaghetti sauce varieties, the next session I watched was Barry Schwartz on The Paradox of Choice.

While Malcom Gladwell (and Howard Moscowitz) were describing the need for different varieties addressing different preferences, Barry Schwartz warns about the far side of that slippery slope. Having too much choice is paradoxically not a freedom-inspiring situation. Instead, an overabundance of choice does a couple things:

  1. Paralyzes the individual. With so many choices, the perceived need to make The Right Choice makes the decision(s) more difficult. This is easy to see - just take a kid to a fancy(ish) restaurant and hand them the menu. Odds are, they'll wind up making a big fuss about not knowing what they want, even as the waiter is waiting beside them for their order. They can't cope with that number of choices. All they want is macaroni, but they're offered Chicken Penne, Stuffed Rigatoni, Pasta Carbonerra, etc... Too many choices results in an inability to choose.
    Barry's example was the relatively recent shift in our relationship with medical doctors. Long ago, if you went to a doctor and had something wrong, they told you what needed to be done, and it was done. Now, you are provided with a series of options, each with their own pros and cons, and you are expected to make the decision. But you have no medical training. And are likely not in top form, so probably shouldn't be making Big Decisions anyway. And the doctor is a medical expert, but is deferring to an untrained amateur.
  2. Internalizes blame for unhappiness with the choices made. If a person can only choose from 2 options, they tend to be either happier with their choice, or less distraught about a bad choice ("Hey, what could I do? There were only 2 choices...")  If there are 100 options, then a person blames themselves for making a bad choice. ("Stupid! You made the wrong choice! Your life would have been so much better if you had picked option #67 instead of option #43. Moron!")

So, what does this mean for education? If we need to address variability in preferences, as demonstrated by Howard Moscowitz' work, we need to balance that with the need to avoid paralysis due to an overabundance of irrelevant or equal choices. (some of his examples really showcase problems with capitalism run amok - arms races between competing companies, resulting in 100 varieties of blue jeans, 1500 perfumes, 600 models of cars, etc...)

I would suggest that both perspectives are critically important, and that the product of reconciling the two is that we must identify key variables and populations and develop appropriate options to effectively address those variables. But no more than that. Any more variability would lead to false options. It would have the appearance of improved freedom and choice, but the result would be decreased satisfaction with the experience.

What does this mean? It means that we shouldn't be leaning toward infinite variability. It means we shouldn't be leaning toward monolithic solutions. We need to be finding an appropriate middle ground. Maybe that means having 2 LMS options supported on a campus. Maybe that means supporting 5, 10, 20 different social software applications and a handful of ways to integrate them.

I think we need to be working to develop a series of best practice guides, and figuring out which clusters of individual preferences can be addressed together, and by which strategies. Of course, the first logical step is to properly identify the clusters of preferences and predispositions, and determine which groups are defined by these clusters. Then, we need to find strategies, pedagogies, and techniques that effectively address the needs of these groups and clusters. Then and only then can we properly design, develop and integrate platforms and applications. This isn't rocket surgery. It's just a matter of taking the needs of students (and teachers, and parents, and the community) seriously rather than dictating the One True Solution, or feeding them an infinite number of options.

We need to pick up the role of the old-school medical doctor, acting as benevolent expert and guiding the novice through a field of choices. We can do this by designing and developing a select range of effective choices, and helping our studends and teachers to select the one that best suits them.