A study about choice and personal responsibility

I’ve just enjoyed reading an excellent thought-provoking book published in 2013, titled Mind over Medicine, written by Lissa Rankin MD.

In one section of the book, Dr. Rankin shares an experiment conducted by social scientists.  They were curious about whether or not learned helplessness in senior citizens could be counteracted by increasing their feelings of control, choice and personal responsibility.  Because of my familiarity with using these same principles in my teaching by employing Dr. Marshall’s Discipline without Stress approach, my ears perked up!

On page 130 of the book, Dr. Rankin explained:

Researchers working with residents of a nursing home designed a study to evaluate the physical health of residents in response to positive changes made in the facility.

They divided the home into two groups–the first floor and the second.  All residents would be able to enjoy the new benefits the home was offering–omelets versus scrambled eggs, movie night on Wednesday or Thursdays, plants to enjoy in their own rooms if they wanted them.  But in order to take advantage of these opportunities, first-floor residents were given extra choice and extra responsibility;  they had to choose which eggs they wanted, sign up for Wednesdays versus Thursdays, and water their own plants.

Second-floor residents, on the other hand, were given the same opportunities, but they were offered no choices or personal responsibilities.  Their schedules were set, leaving them essentially powerless.  Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were omelet days.  Tuesdays and Thursdays were scrambled-egg days.  They were assigned a movie night without being given a choice.  And they didn’t have to pick out or water their own plants.

A year and a half later, researchers found that the first-floor residents, the ones with choice and personal responsibility, were more active, happier and less likely to have died during the study period.  As it turns out, choice, personal responsibility, and the ability to feel useful are good for your health, most likely because you feel happier, and this leaves the body better able to repair itself.

Although this particular study was conducted for a medical purpose, it should also capture the interest of educators.  If you have any prior experience at all with Dr. Marshall’s approach, it’s likely that you are not surprised by the results noticed by the researchers.  In my own classroom, I often chose to take the advice of Dr. Marshall–to build choice, positivity and personal responsibility into the school day.  Not only did this make for a happy and interesting classroom environment, but I found that by deliberately  increasing the number of choices that my students could make (primary-aged, intermediate and teenagers through the years), and by expecting them to take personal responsibility in a variety of ways, I noticed they exhibited an increased desire to be positive and cooperative with me, their teacher. What a blessing that was!

Planning opportunities for students to regularly make choices is a habit that initially takes a bit of thinking and time on the teacher’s part, but it is a proactive and worthwhile move.  The beauty of this nursing home study is that it reminds us that even very small choices can be highly positive and effective when working with people of all ages.  Building in choices to the day can encourage them to become more engaged in such things as their own learning or health. And it’s not hard to do!  The key is to make a decision yourself, as teacher.  When lesson-planning intentionally set a goal to create more opportunities for student choices.

To illustrate here are a few simple ideas from my own teaching:

  • My school secretary always kept our teacher stock room supplied with both white and yellow chalk.  I would often put out a container of both colors on the back classroom table .   After snack time, when students picked up a small chalkboard and eraser at the back table for spelling practice time, they could decide which color of chalk they wanted.
  • If I had three storybooks picked out to read to my Kindergarteners over the period of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I would have all three books leaning against the chalkboard on Monday.  Since I had chosen the books and it didn’t matter to me the order in which I read them, I would have the students vote as to which one we would read on any particular day.
  • During gym class, I might suggest two games and a quick show of hands would decide which one would be played that day.
  • Sometimes when it was time to go to the school assembly, I would ask someone in the class to decide if we should enter the gym through the school hallway or by the outside entrance.
  • On the day that we were wrapping the little Christmas gifts that we had made for parents, I would place an “order form” on each child’s desk prior to their arrival.  After settling into their seats for the day, they would be asked to fill out a form that said:  Please tick which two colors of ribbon you would like to use to wrap your Christmas gift.    __ green,  __ silver,  __red,  __ gold.  At lunch time, it would take me only a few minutes to cut and organize the requested colors that would allow students to feel empowered by having individualized their gift.  Not only did students enjoy having some control over this activity, but it gave them a real reason to read the morning “assignment” on their desk.
  • On the day before a classroom celebration, I would again use the “order form” format to determine which juices or beverages I needed to purchase.  The early morning reading task would then say, “Which drink would you like at the Valentine Tea Party tomorrow?  We will have the two most popular.  __ chocolate milk   __ plain milk,  __water,  __apple juice
  • With my middle school literacy students, with whom I worked one-on-one, I would sometimes have them decide the order of the daily reading, spelling and writing activities that we needed to complete.  They enjoyed switching things up!
  • When I taught intermediate math, I would occasionally assign a sheet of math facts for homework.  Students were asked to complete only 90 of the questions, with the choice to leave out any 10 they chose.  What I noticed is that most students chose to do all 100 anyway!

What choices might you add to your lessons tomorrow?  😀