“Choice theory” and student success. Glasser, W.

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Glasser, W.  (1997).  “Choice theory” and student success.  Phi Delta     Kappan:  16-21.

An Annotation by Jeffery Ayer

Glasser makes a case for choice theory to combat the common reinforcement of a stimulus/response (SR) psychology in today’s classrooms.  He asserts that “SR is completely wrongheaded and totally destructive to the warm, supportive human relationships students need to succeed in school” (16).  With choice theory, students take ownership and responsibility for their actions.  “Accepting that you can control only your own behavior is the most difficult lesson choice theory has to teach,” states Glasser (17).

Glasser goes on to share four psychological needs that all learners have genetically, including “the need to belong, the need for power, the need for freedom, and the need for fun” (17).  Students are more likely to stick with and thrive in school under these conditions, whereas the pain of failure is something eventually that leads to a student leaving school altogether.  “Teachers need to learn and use the most important of all choice theory concepts, the quality world.  This small, very specific, personal world is the core of our lives because in it are the people, things, and beliefs we have discovered most satisfy our needs” (17).

Glasser also focuses on how the SR approach does not really allow teachers to connect with students.  According to Glasser, “This way of teaching is called ‘bossing’” (18).  The bossing, he states, must turn into leading.  “Leaders never coerce.  We follow them because we believe they have our best interests at heart.  In school, if [a student] senses that particular teachers are now caring, listening, encouraging, and laughing, he will begin to consider putting them into his quality world” (18).  Punishing students, on the other hand, leads to a student keeping the teacher, and potentially the school, out of his/her quality world.

In closing, Glasser focuses on special programs that were actually utilized in one school.  Over the duration of that program being implemented, students observed the changes.  “Asked why they were no longer disruptive and were beginning to work in school, [students] said, ‘You care about us.’  Sometimes they added, ‘And now you give us choices and work we like to do’” (19).  The clear, opposing force is the “get tough” mentality, which fights against students rather than working with them.  And in such an environment, eventually those students fighting that very system, give up.  “Life is hard enough without the continuing harangues of the doomsayers.  In a world that uses choice theory, people would be more optimistic,” concludes Glasser (21).


  1. I should preface my remarks by saying I teach grade four and five. That informs my response to the topic of needs, management and learning. Maslow presented his hierarchy of needs and I have been reading Tomlinson’s The Differentiated Classroom (1999) and she offers the premise that human beings share the same basic needs for nourishment, shelter, safety, belonging, achievement, contributing, and fulfillment. These are variations on a theme. I tend toward Glasser because it is simple. I like Maslow’s because he acknowledged learning and self actualization as needs. In education it is worth differentiating learning needs. In my own belief statement I limited it to Glasser’s power: the ability to do something. learning accomplishes that.

    Glasser’s point that we can only control our own behaviour has remained a central tenant of my own classroom management. Our school does focus of Ronald Morrish’s Real Discipline http://www.realdiscipline.com/index.html. At first glance it seems like behaviourism because it starts with compliance to responsible and cooperative behaviour. The goal is to help young people learn how to handle independence. “Today’s popular discipline concentrates on this part to the exclusion of the other components. What we have forgotten in our rush to provide children with freedom of choice is that adults are supposed to prepare children to handle choices and make sure they are ready. It is well-trained, well-taught children that handle choices responsibly and with respect for the rights and needs of others.” This process does not have to be an unreflected one. Glasser is right, we cannot control other people, we need to influence them.

    • Thanks for those thought Alan. Your points remind me of the value of structure and reflection–in all areas of learning.

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