Choosing what to learn and learning what to choose.

The 9th key to learning. 

What is key in learning? This is the ninth of a number of keys that are meant to bring understanding about what learning is and how leaning can be improved by understanding the message of those keys. This key is about why choice makes learning possible.

Choice gives us experience with choosing enabling us to be less fearful of choice. This experience in choosing enables us to gain expertise in choosing that results in us making better choices and thus taking greater responsibility for our lives.

Choice enables us to be self determined instead of controlled. When controlled we lose the desire to initiate anything including learning. Choice then motivates us to learn because the desire to learn remains and is reinforced by the pleasure derived from learning.

Choice also enables us to to find out what we like to do and learn, which in turn makes it more probable that we end up in a vocation where we do and learn those things that we like. It also makes it more probable that we end up in a vocation that is more useful, where we are more productive, and where our work is of greater quality.

It's about what to learn and how choosing wisely is essential in learning. This key sets out how without choice it is almost impossible to learn, how in order to be motivated we need to have a choice. It is also about how to best make choices; how others can help us in making these choices; and what tools are currently available in helping us make these choices.

What to learn, how to learn, where to learn, when to learn and with whom to learn are all choices that we have to make almost continuously throughout our lives. For the most part it could be said that humans usually make a complete mess of this, but there is hope.

"The greatest power that a person possesses is the power to choose." J. Martin Kohe

Choice gives us experience with choosing.

Grooming choosers. 

Fearing to choose. Children, as infants, are unable to choose, and unless they are groomed to make choices, they may well not wish to do so. It is after all easier to let someone else choose for you. Indeed, different cultures have different ideas about what children should make choices about, and when. Like everything we learn, however, learning how to choose does not just naturally develop. To learn how to do it well we have to try and fail and try and fail again. Choosing well is a skill. Like many skills the skill of choosing well is one that is best learned and practiced when as young as possible. Without practice in choosing when young, learners may fear choice or be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices they must make as adults. Only if children practice making choices when they are young is there any possibility of their being experts at choosing when they reach adulthood. The earlier a child has experience of choosing, the better choices he/she will make later in life and the less afraid or overwhelmed they will be.

Fear of children making bad choices. There is an unfortunate attitude about childhood, in western society, that assumes children need to be protected from making choices, and a fear that if children are allowed to makes choices for themselves they will make wrong or bad ones. But if we do not let children make choices, and make the choices for them, how can we expect them to be able to make choices when eventually they become adult. Do they somehow reach a point in life where magically they become able to make choices without previous practice? Much more likely they are suddenly dropped in a terrifying world where they must make choices to survive. It is a world of sink or swim (no practice).

Parents must choose not to choose for their children. While parents must do many things for babies and make choices for them, they must also let babies do for themselves and make choices themselves. If parents do not let their children do things they will never learn how to do them. Likewise if they do not let their children make choices they will never learn how to choose. It is a process where parents start out protecting and supporting their children by choosing for them, but must gradually let go and let their children choose for themselves.

Choice enables us to be self determined instead of controlled.

Choice, self-determination and motivation to learn.

Without choice there is no self. The choice, not to choose, is not a human's natural state and is always, in some hidden way, imposed by others. When a child chooses not to choose he/she is being controlled and through not choosing is giving up his/her ability to determine what he/she will do, think and be. Parents if they are good parents understand this. 

We should not be surprised that learning is improved, augmented and in every way improved by choice, because choice is at the very heart of what it is to learn. Choice is all about learning and learning is all about choice. Choice is essential to autonomy, autonomy is essential to intrinsic motivation, and intrinsic motivation is essential to learning. Many, many, experiments have now been done, and studies carried out on people doing various activities, all of which show that providing people with choice tends to increase intrinsic motivation while lack of choice is interpreted as control and causes intrinsic motivation to plummet alarmingly. A lot of these experiments and studies were performed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and many more were reported in Deci and Ryan's book "Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior".

Lack of choice means being controlled. 

It is sometimes said that people who are following orders or carrying out other's demands have a choice. It is said they have a choice as to whether they perform the required actions or not, and a choice as to how, when and where to perform the actions. However, even this small amount of choice is often not really available, as usually those who control, do so harshly and it may be a matter of do or die. Be that as it may, control always involves some coercive consequences. Even when we are being rewarded there is the threat that the reward will not be forthcoming if we do not comply. Our only choice in this case is to comply or resist. We can comply with what others want us to do, or we resist doing what they want.

When we do something willingly, when we do something that we want to do, we do so by choosing from alternatives. This is the way we express our individuality, our uniqueness, our identity. When we can not choose, our individuality, our uniqueness, our identity, all feel in jeopardy. When this happens our feelings of being autonomous individuals evaporate. Our path is no longer our own, it is determined by something outside ourselves. When we don't have a choice we feel like sheep going to slaughter with no way out. Without choice we can not express who we are, and as a result we feel like nobody. We become like cogs in the machine, unable to change ourselves, and unable to change our circumstances. We become powerless, at the mercy of fate, chance, and anyone who wishes to manipulate us.

Providing choice where there is little. 

Choice is not only uncharacteristic of being controlled, it is the opposite of being controlled. Choice and the perception that we have choice, is what supplies our feelings of autonomy and self-determination. Autonomy or self-determination is a human need and it is one of the strongest needs we have. In his book "Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci explains the importance of choice and how we can and should provide more of it:

"Providing choice in the broad sense of the term, is a central feature in supporting a person's autonomy. It is thus important that people in positions of authority begin to consider how to provide more choice. Even in crowded classrooms, fast paced offices, or harried doctors' offices there are ways, and the more creative one is, the more possibilities one will find. Why not give students choice about what field trips to take and what topics to write their papers about, for example? Why not let the work group participate in the decision of how to allocate responsibilities? And why not let patients take part in planning their treatment regime? It is not always easy to provide choice, but it has become increasingly clear that there will be advantages if you do."

Teachers worry about what their principal will say if they provide more choice. Indeed there are many watching and waiting to step on those who do not conform. Other teachers might object. School administration might intervene. Then there are the ever panicky parents who might want to crucify teachers. Is it worth it, giving students more choice, when it is so easy to do nothing? Managers in business have to beware of other manages, of superiors, etc. Even doctors have to worry about being sued, and if things are not done by the book, they might find themselves more libel. None of this is easy, but as one of our Australian prime ministers (Malcolm Fraser) said, "Life wasn't meant to be easy". Indeed, life is meant to be challenging, and teachers, whether they like it or not, are in a position to make changes.

Superior learning through choice.

We are choice making creatures.

All creatures make decisions all the time about what to do. Most creatures, however, do not seem to be aware that they have more than one option. For them perception and action are linked, in that for them, to perceive is to act. Humans, on the other hand, seem to have been aware since our earliest times, and as our brains become more developed through learning, that there are often many courses of action open to us in any situation. Indeed, the whole frontal part of our brains, the part called the prefrontal lobes, seems to be mainly concerned with stopping us going with the strongest emotional feeling that is goading us into action. The prefrontal lobes send out signals that inhibit certain neurons from firing. In this way the prefrontal lobes become the executive part of the brain, where decisions occur and which allow us to consider the ramifications of other options and then make choices. This part of the brain is very small in other animals. This is the part of the brain that allows us to temporarily disengage reflex action to make intelligent logical choices. This does not mean that emotional choices are bad, only that other possibilities are open to us.

"A human being is a deciding being." Victor E. Frankl

"You and I are essentially infinite choice-makers. In every moment of our existence, we are in that field of all possibilities where we have access to an infinity of choices." Deepak Chopra

Choice engages and enhances learning. 

Learning is always better when there is choice because:

Choice gives pleasure. 

Choice is the opposite of oppression. If you have no choice you feel controlled. But if you have choice you experience the great pleasure and happiness of feeling free. This in turn motivates us. Of course choice is not always pleasurable, sometimes when there are too many options, or we have too little experience to discriminate between options, it can be anxiety producing or overwhelming. However, to be without any choice is painful and to have choice is for the most part pleasurable. 

Choice motivates. 

If we are given a choice as to what we can learn we will be motivated to learn. In his book "Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci says:

"...research has confirmed that choice enhances people's intrinsic motivation, so when people participate in decisions about what to do, they will be more motivated and committed to the task - to being sure the task gets done well. The more seriously people take the challenge of figuring out how to offer choice, the more satisfying they will find their jobs, and the more more positive will be the responses from their students or employees.

Choice engenders willingness. 

We all need to be willing before we can do anything well. That which is done under external pressure is not done willingly, and so only the very minimum needed, will be done or learned. If we wish things to be done well, or learned well, we need some other way of making people willing to do or to learn. In his book "Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci continues to explains the importance of personal choice and its relation intrinsic motivation:

"The main thing about meaningful choice is that it engenders willingness. It encourages people to fully endorse what they are doing; it pulls them into the activity and allows them to feel a greater sense of volition; it decreases their alienation. When you provide people choice, it leaves them feeling as if you are responsive to them as individuals. And providing choice may very well lead to better, or more workable, solutions than the ones you would have imposed."

Choice enables better decisions. 

Deci says in this book:

"...when the people who will carry out a decision participate in making that decision, it is possible that the decisions will be of higher quality than when the manager decides alone."

Choice initiates interest. 

New interests can be generated by means of simply providing the learner with a selection of types or items of information from which the learner can make a choice as to what he/she will learn. In other words, although learners may have no initial interest in learning particular types or items of information, the mere fact of being able to choose particular items or types of information to learn from among a series of options, actually engenders new and novel interest.

Choice enables better recall. 

As has been shown elsewhere on this site interest allows better recall than when there is no interest, and because choice helps create and support interest, it must then also improve recall.

Choice enables better understanding. 

Just as interest improves recall it also improves understanding and so it must follow that choice also improves understanding.

The power of choosing one of three special options.

Life is a succession of choices that can improve our lives, but only if we decide one big choice the right way. In life there are three big options.

  1. We can decide our life and our environment can be changed by our choices, and that therefore we should choose and change the world and ourselves to what we want them to be.

  2. We can decide that some other people can change themselves and the world and that we should help them and do what they want.

  3. Or we can decide that no one can change themselves or the environment and there is no point in trying.

Strictly speaking, there is every shade in between these options as well, however, as will become clear further on, more choice is not necessarily better. For simplicity's sake let us stay with just the three options. The good thing about this choice is that, how we make this all important decision, is learned. This being so, we should be able to construct and environment which will lead to us making the right choice.


Indeed this power of choice is pretty much a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? It is true on the one hand, that each of us does have the choice to take one of these paths in life. On the other hand, our circumstances in life are pushing us toward one of these choices. Our parents, our friends, our teachers, our environment all conspire to pressure us into making one of these choices. The question is, who has the power to make this choice? Do we? Does fate? Or do those who manipulate us have the power to decide for us? There is no easy answer to this, because all of these things are true simultaneously. The more those, who have power over us take away our choices, the less choice we have and the less autonomous we feel. The more, those with power over us, give us choice, the more choice we have, the more we feel self-determined.

"The key to your universe is that you can choose." Frederick (Carl) Frieseke

Learned helplessness, no choice. 

You might think that nobody would choose the option of learned helplessness, but strangely people do. How the choice of this option might be arrived at, is all important.

Choosing not to choose has its attractiveness, in that every choice made is a door closed, a bridge burned. There is a need to keep the doors of choice open. Choice can not only be viewed as opening new doors but also it can be seen as simultaneously closing the other doors not chosen. By making a choice we are effectively ending the other options. We are burning our bridges. There is no turning back. This can be very hard. We want to have our cake and eat it too. In his book "Predictably Irrational" Dan Ariely tells how he noticed this seeming indecisiveness in people around him. He gives an example of a female student avoiding letting go of an old boy friend even though she has a new better one and her attitude is putting that relationship in jeopardy. Another example he gives is of a male student not wanting to choose a major in college as two career paths seemed equally attractive and many others.

He, and his fellow researchers constructed an experiment to test this idea. They presented a group of students with a computer screen with three doors. By clicking in a door the students could win varying amounts of money. The students tried all three doors for a few clicks and then picked the one that seemed to be most consistently giving them the highest amounts of money on average. So far so good. While all the doors were still available students did what we would rationally expect. Then the researchers changed what would happen. If the students clicked in one door the other two doors would get smaller and disappear after twelve clicks. Now instead of using the rational strategy of trying all the doors, then choosing the best and sticking with it, the students spent their time jumping from door to door trying to keep them all open. This resulted in them winning far less money but they seemed unable to overcome the compulsion keep their options open.

Although we all have this desire not to choose we normally do end up making a choice. There are some people, however, for whom the ability to overcome this desire does not exist. We all know that certain people, people who are depressed, are often unable to make any choices for themselves, and indeed would not be able to function in the world at all, if others did not make those decisions for them. These people have learned to be helpless in the world. Such people feel that there is no point in making a choice, because whatever choice they make the outcome with be the same.

Such people believe that things, themselves, others, the world, all do not really change. Oh sure there might be an appearance of change, but underneath things, people, the world, remain the same. Although rational people believe on some level that they can affect the world, it seems that if people are deprived of the choices, such as being able to help themselves out of pain and difficulty, people will learn that they are helpless in the world. If we are deprived of choices we become passive and believe the world cannot be changed, and that we ourselves cannot be changed either.

Learned helplessness was uncovered by Martin Seligman, and in his book "Learned Optimism" he tells the story. While he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania it was brought to Seligman's notice that there was a problem with the dogs being used for experiments. Researchers had been trying a form of Pavlovian conditioning where a particular tone was paired for dogs with an electric shock. The idea was to see if the dogs would react to the sound as if they had been shocked. After this had gone on for some time the dogs were placed in a box where they would be shocked. The researchers wanted the dogs to learn to jump over a small partition to escape the shocks. But now the dogs simply lay there whimpering, letting themselves be shocked. Seligman tells the story:

"As I listened to Overmier and then looked at the whimpering dogs, I realized that something much more significant had already occurred than any result the transfer experiment might produce: Accidentally, during the early part of the experiment, the dogs must have been taught to be helpless. That's why they had given up. ...I was stunned by the implications. If dogs could learn something as complex as the futility of their actions, here was an analogy to human helplessness, one that could be studied in the laboratory."

Although an animal lover, Seligman decided to test his idea with the following experiment:

"We called it the 'triadic' experiment, because it involved three groups [of dogs] yoked together.

We would give the first group escapable shock: By pushing a panel with it's nose a dog in that group could turn off the shock. The dog would have control because one of its responses mattered.

The shock-giving device for the second group would be 'yoked' to that of the first dogs: they would get exactly the same shocks as the first, but no response they made would have any effect. The shock a dog in the second group experienced would cease when the 'yoked' dog in the first group pushed its panel.

A third group would get no shocks at all.

Once the dogs went through the experience, each according to its category, all three would be taken to the shuttle box. They should easily learn to jump over the barrier to escape from shock.

...In early January of 1965 we exposed the first dog to shocks from which it could escape and the second dog to shocks from which it could not escape. The third dog was left alone. The next day we took the dogs to the shuttle box and gave all three shocks they could easily escape by hopping over the low barrier dividing one side of the box from the other.

Within seconds the dog that had been taught to control shocks discovered that he could jump over the barrier and escape. The dog that earlier had received no shocks discovered the same thing, also in a matter of seconds. But the dog that had found that nothing it did mattered made no effort to escape..."

Seligman repeated the experiment 8 times with other dogs. Six dogs made no effort to escape, all from the group that had learned that nothing they did made any difference. Clearly, if our life circumstances place us in situations where we have no choice to avoid pain or discomfort we are likely to learn that we are helpless. Not only that, but this belief in our impotence will follow us into situations where there is choice of escape.

Factors that tend to ensure we make the choice to be helpless. 

So how do humans learn to be helpless? Seligman had his own ideas about which elements in the environment led to helplessness. The elements, most apparent in the environments that produced helplessness, were early experiences with adversity over which the person had no control.

Uncontrollable adversity. 

If too many adverse things happened in a child's early life over which the child had no choice the child would tend to become helpless. Deaths of parents, divorces, inescapable violence and pain (abuse) could all cause feelings of helplessness and eventual depression.

Explanatory style. 

Seligman also noticed that explanatory styles of expression and thinking seemed to be important in environments that produced helplessness. This was something that could in fact be controlled. If temporary explanations of adversity and failure could be used instead of permanent ones there would be less likelihood of helplessness. If specific explanations of adversity and failure could be used instead of universal ones there would be less overall helplessness.


When people talk about human qualities and qualities of the universe as if they are permanent they are implying that they cannot be changed. If something cannot be changed there is little point in trying to change it, so we do not try. When you say, "I'm all washed up." this is not only negative but also implies a permanent state that is not changeable. When someone tells you that, "You always nag", this is not only harsh criticism of you, but also implies that this quality of nagging is unchangeable and is a permanent part of you, regardless of whether others or yourself might wish it not to be. If someone tells you "The boss is a bastard", you do not understand that the boss sometimes acts to make life harsh for the employees, you understand that the boss always makes life harsh for the employees. Adversity and failure are therefore explained in terms of permanence and thus cannot be affected or changed. We see no point in making a choice to do something, because it won't change anything. 


Some people make explanations of failure and adversity that are specific while others make explanations of failure and adversity that are universal. People who make universal explanations for their failures or for adversity, give up on everything when adversity or failure strikes in only one area. If people were to use specific explanations they would still be rendered helpless, but only in that specific area. When you say, "I'm repulsive", this is not only negative but also implies that you are repulsive to everybody, not just some specific person. When someone tells you that, "Books are useless", this not only indicates that a particular book is useless, but also implies that all books have no use. If someone tells you "All teachers are unfair", you do not understand that a particular teacher is unfair, but rather that there are no teachers that are fair. Adversity and failure are therefore explained in terms of all pervasiveness and thus cannot be confined to specific areas. We can find no areas in which we can help ourselves, because all areas seem to fall into the category where nothing can be done to affect them. We see no point in making a choice to do something, because we won't be able to affect anything.

Although Seligman explained these ideas mostly in terms of criticism and self blame or regret, others have shown since, that the ideas apply equally to praise or even idle comments.

Learned submissiveness, other's choice. 

Submissiveness is not really the right word, as a search for the word on Google will produce material on perverse masochism. The concept to be conveyed here is rather the irresponsibility, laziness, security seeking and dependence that comes from giving up one's autonomy to others. This concept can feel comfortable and is not far from most people's desires. However, other similar words like servility have their own problems, so let us stick with submissiveness. For many of us the idea of letting others make choices for us may seem like a good thing. Making choices means taking responsibility for those choices and some choices, such as those concerning life and death matters for loved ones, can be very painful to be responsible for. But even with small choices the responsibility can mount up as the number of choices mounts up. Also letting others choose can restore the time we can waste on trying to choose the best when good enough will suffice, especially on unimportant choices.

There is here, another reason for making the choice to submit to the choice of others, an aberration that strikes at the very heart of learning. We learn by being wrong or failing, and wrongness and failure have become associated with very strong negative emotions of regret. In his book "The Paradox of Choice" Barry Schwartz calls this process counterfactual thinking, but it is, when undistorted by this submissive orientation, simply learning. Schwartz explains it like this:

"And what makes the problem of regret much worse is that such thinking is not restricted to objective reality. The power of human imagination enables people to think about states of affairs that don't exist. ...Thinking of the world as it isn't, but might be or might have been, is called counterfactual thinking. The limo to the airport went on Elm Street. If only it had gone on Main Street. That's contrary to fact. 'If only it had gone on main Street, I would have made my plane.'"

There was a mistake made. He missed his plane. He should be learning from his experience, and he is. He is thinking of all the things he could have done differently. He could have gone down main Street. He could have got up earlier. He could have scheduled a later flight. He is imagining how he could have avoided the mistake. This is information he needs to know, so he won't make the same mistake again, and will be able to do some thing differently, as he has imagined. This is learning in its most useful form. But thinking of these things is summoning up painful feelings of regret. This is also associating these painful feelings with the act of choosing. It is making choosing seem very unattractive. These new imagined alternatives for next time are what has been learned and they are kept sharp in the mind by the painful feelings of regret. But this can also make it attractive to let somebody else make the choice.

In his book "Man for Himself" Erich Fromm tells us about the use of power to control: "The paralyzing effect of power does not rely only upon the fear it arouses, but equally on an implicit promise - the promise that those in possession of power can protect and take care of the 'weak' who submit to it, that they can free man from the burden of uncertainty and of responsibility for himself by guaranteeing order and assigning the individual a place in this order which makes him feel secure." The point is that letting others choose for us has its attractions.

Factors that tend to ensure we make the choice to be submissive.

Parents teachers and society at large have to socialize us so that we can be good and constructive members of society. The methods used to do this in the past have been to threaten or punish, and to reward or manipulate. These are all extrinsic motivators and they violate our autonomy by depriving us of choice. They also are some of the very things that cause people to learn to be helpless.

Threat and punishment. 

We are all familiar with the fact that punishment or the threat of punishment can lead to several things, none of them good. If it is inescapable it can lead to helplessness. It can also lead to rebellion, resistance or reactance. This can manifest against the punisher where the punished fights to maintain his autonomy. But this almost always ends badly for the punished.

But usually it manifests downward as a pecking order. Someone punishes or threatens you, but instead of fighting back the built up aggression causes you in turn, to threaten or punish someone below you in the pecking order, and they in turn punish or threaten someone below them, reinforcing the whole structure of threat and punishment. You could argue that such people have not learned to be totally submissive and this is true. But they have given up autonomy and have no choice in what they do. The more they are threatened or punished the more they threaten or punish others. This is not what they really want. They do not want to be feared by others. They want what everybody wants, to be loved and admired. But they have no choice. They are compelled by the anger and aggression welling up.

If the threat or punishment is severe, it may result in helplessness or complete compliance with the punisher's wishes. When the latter happens, the anger and aggression are suppressed, and the punished becomes entirely passive and compliant. Such people are unable to do anything other than what others tell them. Such people have lost their autonomy.

However some people who seem to be passive and compliant are actually not. They secretly hang on to some shards of autonomy by performing what is asked for, and not what is intended. This is the resistance of slaves. These people retain a little autonomy against all odds.

Basically an environment of threat and punishment is not a good way to go if we wish people to retain their autonomy but it is a good way of making them submissive.


We are less familiar with the conclusion that reward is also most often seen as an attempt to manipulate and that this too can lead to submissiveness. Resistance and reactance occur as before in reaction to the perceived attempt to manipulate. A master is perhaps kinder if he rewards rather than punishes, but he is still depriving you of making your own choice. He is depriving you of your autonomy.

Not all rewards manipulate or control and it is important to distinguish those that do manipulate from those that do not. The main type of rewards that manipulate are conditional rewards. This is where, if you do something you will be rewarded. Although this kind of reward causes loss of autonomy and thus loss of intrinsic motivation, it is addictive. The more you are controlled by conditional reward and are thus extrinsically motivated, the more you want to be rewarded that way and the less you want to be intrinsically motivated.

However, conditional reward is not the only kind of reward that enables a submissive or dominated mindset. In her book "Mindset" Carol Dweck shows how certain kinds of praise enable the learning and forming of a fixed mindset. This mindset incorporates both the formation of helplessness, and the formation of dependence on others for guidance and approval which is just a way of being dominated.


Certain kinds of praise are reinforcing the view that things are a particular way that cannot, does not change. When people around us, especially significant people such as teachers, parents and adults in general, say "you are" they are telling you that there is something about you that does not change, something that is permanently you. If people say, "You're a genius", "You're really talented", "You're a natural",  etc. this all implies that you did not have to do anything to be that way, that you were born that way. All these statements, are writing on your mental map of reality, that there is something about you that is fixed. This is not only out of your control, but whether you are understood to be these things is not dependent on some universal external measure, but is entirely dependent on what certain others think.

This kind of praise can have an even more damaging effect in that it seems to create the notion, that not only is no effort required, but that the application of effort would indicate that you do not have these attributes. If you need to try and be a genius, you are clearly demonstrating that you are not one. If you have to make an effort to grow a talent, then clearly you are not talented. You end up in a catch 22 where if you appear to try or make an effort, you appear to diminish the the attribute you are trying to have others see in you. Strictly speaking such attributes as intelligence or talent should only be able to get worse as trying and effort are in this case denied to you. You can end up coasting through life without improvement. This can work fine for a long time, but life is such that eventually you will be in a situation where your talent is not enough and you will fail. You will not expect this praise when you fail, but without it you will be lost.

Learned self-determination, my choice. 

We also know that certain people are like forces of nature. They are passionate about anything they undertake, and have an unshakable certainty that they can accomplish whatever might please them given sufficient time and effort.  Such people persist in their effort long beyond what most people would call reasonable. They try to change the world in large and wonderful ways, and for the most part they succeed. When they do fail, they do not see it as failure, but rather as feedback that is guiding them in their accomplishments. These people believe that their actions shape themselves and the world around them, and they do. Some change themselves or the world in small ways, and some in very large ways indeed. These people are truly self-determined and they delight in choices as a way of expressing their volition. These people have learned to be masters of themselves and their environment. These people are our heroes. They are as we would like to be. They try and fail and try again and fail again and still keep on trying. Sometimes they are on top, and sometimes they are the underdogs.

There is an experiment which shows as clearly how such self-determination comes into being as Seligman's experiment explains learned helplessness. In her book "The Art of Choosing" Sheena Iyengar tells of this rather shocking experiment:

"In 1957 Curt Richter...researcher at John Hopkins School of Medicine conducted an experiment... To study the effects of water temperature on endurance, Richter and his colleagues placed dozens of rats into glass jars - one rodent per jar - and then filled the jars with water. Because the walls of these jars were too high and slick to climb, the rats were left in a literal sink-or-swim situation. Richter even had water jets blasting from above to force the rats below the surface if they tried to float idly instead of swimming for their lives. He then measured how long the rats swam - without food, rest or chance of escape - before they drowned.

The researchers were surprised to find that even when the water temperatures were identical, rats of equal fitness swam for markedly different lengths of time. Some continued for an average of 60 hours before succumbing to exhaustion, while others sank almost immediately. It was as though, after struggling for 15 minutes, some rats simply gave up, while others were determined to push themselves to the utmost physical limit. The perplexed researchers wondered whether some rats were more convinced than others that if they continued to swim, they would eventually escape. Were rats capable of different 'convictions'? But what else could account for such a significant disparity in performance, especially when the survival instinct of all the rats must have kicked in? Perhaps the rats that showed more resilience had somehow been given reason to expect escape from their terrible predicament.

So in the next round of the experiment, rather than throwing them into the water straightaway, researchers first picked up the rats several times, each time allowing them to wriggle free. After they had become accustomed to such handling, the rats were placed in the jars, blasted with water for several minutes, then removed and returned to their cages. This process was repeated multiple times. Finally the rats were put into the jars for the sink or swim test. This time none of the rats showed signs of giving up. They swam for an average of more than 60 hours before becoming exhausted and drowning."


Even though all these rats died, they chose to live. They chose to fight to live as long as their muscles still worked. This gives us an idea of what might enable humans to make this sort of choice just as the rats did. It's not just about self preservation, its about a belief that what you do matters and that if you give it your best shot, you will  have either succeeded or at least will have survived. Is it possible then to understand how an environment could be constructed to nudge people toward this choice? Many scientist think it is possible. Most notable in uncovering how to create these circumstances is the work by Carrol Dweck and that by Deci and Ryan.


Deci and Ryan show that the most essential thing for choosing to change both yourself and the world around you is to have a choice in what you do. How can you be expected to make this important choice if you have no experience in making choices? Deci and Ryan also show that the belief that you have a choice is more important to learned self-determination than is actual choice. Even more important than that, is the belief that the choices that you make are of your own choosing and have not been chosen for you by others who are somehow manipulating your choice. For instance, there is a big difference between telling someone to do something and asking if someone could be so kind as to do something. By telling someone to do something, choice is eliminated and resistance or reactance is almost assured. It is likely we will choose not to do what we are told to do, even if we were originally going to do it. Indeed, this can be seen as another form of manipulation where someone gets you to do something by telling you not to do it (reverse psychology). The importance of autonomy in feeling that one can change one's circumstance for the better, is to believe you have had previous experience in making decisions that have led to better circumstances. To do this people need to feel that the choices they made were their own and that they were not at the mercy of manipulation by others.

Deci and Ryan were more concerned about how people could retain self-determination while in the process of internalizing social conventions, without building up resistance or reactance. They concluded that as the belief that we have choice is far more important to self-determination than any objective choice. Our manner and the way others present choice is what is most significant.

  1. Acknowledgment. One way of promoting self-determination is to acknowledge that the person may desire to venture outside the limits that are being set. People are more willing to choose to behave, within the limits being set, if it is acknowledged the that they might not wish to comply.

  2. Watch your language. Perhaps the simplest idea in promoting self-determination within limits is to refrain from using controlling language. Words like should, must and have to and be good are not helpful in supporting self-determination and thus it is best not to use them in trying to impart cultural limits for choice.

  3. Provide information. Information as to why there is need for the limitations, you are trying to convey, is also useful in supporting self-determination. People need to know why such limitations are necessary. Once they understand why, they are much more likely to accept limitations without feeling controlled. It can become thus, meaningful to them to stay within the limits requested when choosing.

  4. Provide choice within the limits. Although it is not always possible, or wise, to let people have very wide freedom of choice, it may be possible to set fairly wide limits within which the other person feels they still have wide possible choice. This helps to enable people to feel self-determined while remaining within the limits.

Incremental Self-theories and a growth mindset. 

Learning self-determination requires that people believe that the world and themselves can be changed. Carol Dweck has shown in her research that the criticism and praise given as part of the environment in which people grow up and exist in, is highly significant in promoting just this belief. She recommends that people be neither praised or criticized to this end. But if you can't praise or criticize the person just what do you praise or criticize? The answer is you praise or criticize the process. The process to be criticized or praised can be of how much effort put in, the amount of work done, how tenaciously people persevere in trying to accomplish, or of the amount or quality of strategies tried. If you want to change yourself and the world around you, you must first believe you can, through effort, work, perseverance and the right strategies. If you fail, only strong belief, derived from this kind of praise or criticism, will enable you to redouble your efforts, work harder and try again or try a different strategy.

  1. Effort. Praise or criticism of effort focuses the person on what can be done to change things, and will help create a belief that things can change if sufficient effort is applied. Suppose we praise saying something like: "I really admire how much effort you have put into this project. If you keep putting this much effort into your work, you will eventually succeed." In this way we can be helping build a belief that anything can be changed with time and effort.

  2. Amount of work. Similarly, praise or criticism of the amount of work done also focuses a person on what can be done to change things and will help create a belief that things can change if sufficient work is done. Suppose we praise and criticize saying something like: "Previously you weren't making full use of your brain, but now you are really challenging yourself and working your butt off. You'll do great this year." In this case we further build a belief that things can be changed if only you are willing to put in the work.

  3. Perseverance. Also, praise or criticism of perseverance focuses a person on what can be done to change things, and will help create a belief that things can change if we just keep working at it. Suppose we praise saying something like: "I really admire the way you focused on the problem and stuck at it till you eventually understood and mastered it." Again we are encouraging the belief that things can change if we just keep persevering.

  4. Strategies. Finally praise or criticism, of the strategies used, also focuses a person on what can be done to change things and will help create a belief that things can change if we are willing to try a variety of strategies. Suppose we praise saying something like: "I really like the way you kept trying all kinds of strategies for that physics problem until you finally found a way that worked." Thus we are making sure the person does not give up just because one strategy does not work, and we are again enabling the belief that things can change if only we can find the right strategy to change it.

Cognitive dissonance and the activation of new intrinsic motivation. 

Cognitive dissonance can explain why making a choice from a group of alternatives activates burgeoning intrinsic motivation to learn what is chosen. It works as follows. Cognitive dissonance, among other things, is the social process whereby people rationalize the choices they make into the belief that those choices were the best choices. This is so because when a choice is made it creates an attribution that is dissonant with what the leaner believed before. He/she was not interested but he/she made the choice to learn. Why would he/she choose to do this if he/she wasn't motivated? This attribute is dissonant both with any other choices the learner might have made and also with the possibility of making no choice. In order to reduce this unpleasant feeling of dissonance a learner has to change one of these conditions. The learner cannot reduce the dissonance by not making the choice. It is already made. So instead, the learner changes what he or she believes. Instead of continuing to believe he/she is not intrinsically motivated to learn the information he/she changes his/her mind and instead believes that he/she is intrinsically motivated to learn in that area of information. They chose to learn about that area of information because they were intrinsically motivated to learn it, so they must still be intrinsically motivated to learn in it. They made the choice because it was the right choice.

Choice enables us to find out what we like to learn and do.

Two or three varieties of choice.

What we call choice is in fact two related but very different activities. Lets call them Known Choice and Unknown Choice. When people make a choice they can either already know what they want or they can have no idea what they want or might like. If they have no idea what they like or are interested in they can pick at random which gives a third type of choice Random Choice.

Unknown or unprepared choice.

If people have no idea what they want (lack expertise) they are forced to perform an experimental test to try to discover which option they prefer before they make the choice. This can take the form of sampling products and services or checking out people and facilities. This obviously does require considerable effort. In this case the more options there are the more difficult this test is to perform and the less accurate and less reliable the results of that test will become. People performing this kind of choice can become burdened by having to perform all these tests and in doing so become prone to make even more mistakes about their own likes and dislikes which can culminate in choosing options they do not like at all. 

Fortunately there a number of ways they can make this testing both easier and more accurate. People can avoid the difficulty of performing these tests in two ways. Firstly they can simply try a number of options and stop when they find one they like. Secondly they can simply rely on tests made by others and follow their choices. Facilitators should keep in mind, that when people are not aware of what they could be interested in, too many areas of information to choose from, is counter productive. A great deal of research especially by Sheena Iyengar has shown conclusively that too many choices make choosing difficult and unpleasant. Thus the pleasure of developing new intrinsic interest depends on the learner's ability to make an informed choice. Given too many items to choose from and or too little knowledge of how to discriminate between those items leads to, not only difficulty in choosing, but less actual commitment to the choice and thus less intrinsic interest and its resulting intrinsic motivation. Although initially unknown, the options can become known allowing an informed choice, where the learner is rapidly able to commit him or herself to the new belief, increasing the attractiveness of the new area of information.   

Random choice.

The opposite of making an informed choice, or of properly discriminating between options, is simply to pick based on some random selective process. Although one might expect that picking at random should have the same attractiveness, as far as cognitive dissonance is concerned, this is not the case. The knowledge that one has picked at random is not dissonant with what the learner believed before he/she made the choice. He/she was not interested before and still seems not to be interested.

Known familiar or prepared choice.

If people know what they want making a choice requires no effort. Also the number of choices is very little impediment to choice if they know what they are looking for. The choice is determined by the availability of the option that they want. If it is available they choose it and if its not they can't choose it because its not available. Making this kind of choice is a bit like not choosing at all, and yet it is the most important type of choice as far as personal autonomy is concerned. If one has a great deal of experience (expertise) with different domains of knowledge or familiarity with many products making a choice when presented with choices becomes easy. The person has in effect made the choice before he/she makes the choice. He or she already knows what he/she is interested in. When presented with a choice it is a forgone conclusion. Making a choice from known options is also an informed choice which allows the learner to further commit him or herself to the old belief increasing the attractiveness of the old area of information.

Expertise in choosing.

Being expert in choosing means being familiar with the options that you have to choose between. The more familiar you are with the options the less choosing you actually have to do because the choice in a sense is already made. 

To understand how this works consider the idea of interests and domain subjects that are taught in schools. If you are interested in a particular domain subject matter there is no problem in choosing. When presented with options to choose from you simply choose the subject matter you are interested in if it is available. If you are interested in a number of the options you choose the options (subject domains) that are the most interesting to you.

However, if you are unfamiliar with any of the subject domains presented as options you have to somehow become familiar with those subject domains before making a choice. You have to sample the subjects, and get sufficiently familiar with them as to be able to discriminate between them. Not only that but you also have become familiar with them under time pressure. The only alternative is to choose at random without any familiarity of the domain subjects at all. If you do this the likelihood of choosing badly is very great indeed.

This is a problem as it is clear we cannot become expert in everything. Still it is also clear that some things are more important than others when it comes to choosing. For instance choosing the best brand of toothpaste is far less important than choosing the best school to go to or the best subjects to learn. There are many considerations in choosing the best subjects to learn but one of the most vital is whether you are interested in the subjects or not.

This site holds that being interested in subject domains is all important in choosing subject domains to learn. The more interested you are in a particular subject the easier it will be to learn because the more intrinsically interested in it you will be to learn it. It follows then that it is vital to find out as early as possible where your interests lie and to expand your familiarity with as many subject domains as possible so that when subject domains are presented to you as options to learn you will have a good number to choose from.

The more areas of information or subject matter domains each learner is familiar with, the better those learners grade them into a continuum of most preferred to least preferred or from most interesting to least interesting. Thus without any pressure they are arranged or sorted into a progression from first choice to last choice before any choice has to be made.

It is imperative then that teachers or facilitators in schools spend a lot of their time exposing students the vast numbers of areas of information and subject domains that it is is possible to learn in. Only with this kind of exposure will they become familiar with those domains and only then can they become interested in some of those domains. Ideally this exposure should be presented in such a way as to lure students to be interested in those subject domains or in other words to make each of those subject domains contagious as explained on the page devoted to contagion here.

Learners choosing what knowledge to know. 

We are in every way the choices we have made. Our selves, our identity, everything we are, is constructed out of the choices we have made. We are our memories and our knowledge and both of these things come to be because of our choices. Our memories are those things that we do in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The things we do we choose to do. Even the circumstances where we find ourselves are mostly due to choices we have made. Of course our knowledge is all we have to help us make those choices. But knowledge is the result of learning and what we learn is also the result of choices we have made. The major part of what we have learned is our academic learning so our choices in this regard are very important in regard to what we become.

The desire to learn many particular domains of interest.

A teacher has been allocated many functions since the time when schools and teaching was invented. Is a teacher's job to impart information, prepare students for a life of work, or enable students to choose and find their way in the world? All these and many other possible functions have some merit  But this site herein suggests that the main function of a teacher should be to maximize in each student the acquiring of knowledge. This can only be done if teachers facilitate students to appreciate or enjoy learning a broad range of academic subject domains or information categories. This site holds that it is more important for students to learn to love learning than it is for them to learn specific things. In other words the desire to learn is more important that the actual knowledge. What this means in effect is that teachers should enable (facilitate) students to enjoy learning in as many different domains as is possible for them. For only if students enjoy learning will learning become easy, only then will students desire to learn, only then will they learn well only then will society truly benefit from their learning.

Common knowledge and unique knowledge.

The way it works at the moment, up till the end of high school learners are fed mostly all the same information or data and are expected to convert it into the same knowledge. In this way we are expected to all have accumulated the same common knowledge. This is not only assumed to be a good thing but actually essential for society to function. This site wishes to challenge these assumptions. This site holds that the desire to learn is more important than anything that can be learned and that the desire to learn a lot of different subjects will be more important and useful to both individuals and society itself than having learned some common knowledge. This site holds that the desire of each person to learn as many diverse subjects as possible and learning subjects different from those learned by peers is a good thing that will enable us to make better and easier choices as we progress to college, university and into the work force. Our choices will be better and easier because of both our greater familiarity with the many options and the greater practice we will have had in making choices. These advantages to individuals and to society completely out weigh any advantage that may come from having a common knowledge base.

Because we have always been told that this common knowledge base is important, and has seemingly always been there, it may be difficult to even see what other subjects there are and that could be taught in the earlier stages of school life. There are some subjects that are never taught in school even thought they are essential life skills like food what to eat and why, human health the need for exercise and other lifestyle improvements. Then there are many subjects that are subdivisions of the subjects we are taught that are buried and ignored. The so called fundamental subjects taught before the end of high school are often so broad in their coverage as to be useless, and colleges and universities for the most part teach them again, as they do not trust that enough was learned or understood previously. The point is that we cannot afford to let college and university be the point where learners first make choices nor where we first begin to diverge in our knowledge and interests.    

How might this be accomplished? A learner's desire, to learn a particular type or item of information, is what is understood as a learner's interest. These interests are expanded and generated by the joy the leaner experiences when learning those particular items or types of information. The pleasure, that is obtained in this way, is said to be intrinsic to that information and thus promotes intrinsic motivation in the learner.

Evoking new intrinsic motivation.  

Teachers (facilitators) have the very difficult job of somehow increasing the number of knowledge domains each learner (student) is interested in and in turn evoke new intrinsic motivation in each learner to learn in each of those new domains, to want to learn in those new domains. A possible answer to how this might be accomplished comes from the world of food.

Exposure and sensory expansion.

We are all fairly aware of the type of food we should eat if we want to be healthy, but the problem for most of us is that we do not like it and the food we do like is really bad for us. We need to learn to like healthy food and as it turns out it is possible to do this. In her book "First Bite" Bee Wilson tells the story Sapere: "From 2009 to 2014, the Finnish government took the ambitious step of funding Sapere food education in all kindergartens in the country." The experiment worked with an immediate drop in the obesity rates of young children in Finland. The program itself did not force children to try new food but instead encouraged them to experiment and play with different foods, explore their senses especially their senses of smell and taste, and of course watch each other eat. Thus they were exposes to a whole new range of healthy foods in small amounts, they were not forced to indulge in them but rather encouraged to do so, their sensory perception was expanded, and they egged each other on. The result was that the children developed a taste for many new foods and incidentally enjoyed eating more. This site holds that this is a formula that can be used to expand any group of interests including academic interests.

Expanding intrinsic academic interest.

Academic interests have many of the same problems as our taste in food. We know we should be interested in more subjects but we tend to dislike many of the ones we know about. However, what worked for food can easily be adapted to work for academic subjects. The main key to increasing interest used by Sapere was exposure in small amounts of different foods without pressure to consume. It is not difficult to imagine students being exposed to small amounts of many academic subjects, and without pressure, being encouraged to become involved with any that strike a student's fancy. Another feature was the focus on sensory involvement. This is important for memory as well as enjoyment. Things that seem dull in some information modes like reading and hearing may become exciting and enjoyable when presented in different sensory modes like visual presentation, video, touch, feel, experimentation, with taste and smell involvement. Exposure without pressure should lead to student enjoyment unless the student has already built up an aversion to a subject. After all learning academic subjects is enjoyable by its very nature unless the learner is already tuned off.

The opposite is true when subject learning is coupled with stress and coercion. In this case, instead of subject matter becoming enjoyable, it becomes painful and unpleasant. When learning with coercion and stress we tend to build up unpleasant associations with the particular subjects, thus constructing an aversion to them. Students are likely to acquire these preferences while they are young. We build up our food preferences while we are young and the few academic subject preferences we accumulate we also manage to accumulate while we are quite young. Once we have imprinted these preferences they are difficult to change. While our food preferences do change a little it is hard to overcome this initial imprinting. Likewise our interest in academic subjects also only changes a little as the initial aversions are hard to shake and new interests are often blocked by a general aversion to new things. It becomes imperative then, that we are exposed to as many subject domains (without pressure) as is possible as early as possible, so that we never build up such aversions.

Making the choice.

Suppose we succeed in providing students with this plethora of interests in subject domains all of which they would like to learn about. This creates other problems. Even though, in our initial school learning, we are for the most part supposed to all learn the same things, the fact is that with the ever increasing amount of information in the world, the idea of learning everything is completely impossible. This leads us to question the idea that we need to learn anything that others have learned. Do we really need to have some common knowledge and if so how much? This site holds that the amount of common knowledge needed is very small indeed within particular domains. This site also holds that this common knowledge would be better distributed evenly over all subject domains rather than restricted to a few so called fundamental subject domains.

Jean Piaget first showed that all knowledge is constructed building on earlier learned more fundamental knowledge. He showed that most knowledge cannot be learned at all until more fundamental knowledge has been learned first. A good analogy that is given is the building of a house. First you put in the foundations then you put up the walls and finally you put on the ceiling and the roof. This idea is very good and helps understand how knowledge is created in our minds. However, some psychologists and educators most notably David Ausubel in his book "Educational Psychology" have taken this idea of constructing knowledge and tuned it on its head and into a regimented way of learning which they believe is the way we should learn.

At first glance, this idea of being fed information in the correct order for constructing it into knowledge does seem like the way we should learn, as it would be efficient. First you would be fed foundation information which you would enable you to put down the foundations of knowledge. Then you would gradually be fed bricks of wall information which you build up brick by brick into knowledge walls. Lastly you would be fed ceiling and roof information which you convert into ceiling knowledge and roof knowledge. Unfortunately this is not the natural way we learn, because it does not take into account our desire to learn or not to learn. It does not take into account our interests. More than that, it is not like we hear or read something and convert it into knowledge. The fact is, we convert less than half of what we hear and read into knowledge, even when we are very interested in it. Learning is a series of steps and missteps building sometimes but often not being able to build without first going back to acquire more fundamental information first. Without the desire to learn very little happens. But with intrinsic interest we are driven to search for information to scan material or read it and often read it again to mark passages and hunt for more passages to mark.

How we learn is how we should learn. Our knowledge house is not going to fall down despite the lack of some foundations. Learning is experiencing information in complex form, not understanding it, but wanting to understand it because it seems interesting, and in consequence going back to learn more fundamental information in the same subject domain. The point is we cannot simply be fed the right information in the right sequence. The teacher can facilitate but cannot guide learning without first engaging a learner's interest in the subject domain. Indeed trying to force feed information in a particular subject domain is a very likely way creating an aversion to the very subject matter that we are presenting.

The smorgasbord of information and subject domains.

So if we succeed in providing students with diverse group of unique interests in subject domains those domains will be familiar and become ranked in student minds. This of course means that students are able to make choices easily and automatically. What teachers ultimately present to students to choose from is a smorgasbord of options. From this smorgasbord students can pick and choose from those familiar options that they already have an interest in or sample other options to get some idea if they too would be interesting.

The important thing about choosing which items of information to learn is that if the learning is interesting and therefor enjoyable. The area of learning (the domain) becomes intrinsically something we are motivated to learn. When this is the case, there is no problem of choosing from a very many item list of options. A problem occurs with too many choices when the chooser is not sure if he/she will enjoy learning in some of the knowledge domains or not. If the chooser is sure that all the options will be enjoyable to learn this problem does not occur as familiar options are already ranked.

From the point of view of the teacher providing students with familiar options that are already interests in the student's minds enables students to have expertise in choosing and intrinsic motivation to learn in those domains. Unfortunately this simple idea does not work well in practice as learners will still be exposed to many new unfamiliar options. Students can  be overwhelmed if presented with too many unfamiliar items to choose from where they have too little information they can use to discriminate between those items.

The introduction of learners to increasing numbers of domains, in a way that makes them interesting to each learner and does not overwhelm those learners with too many options, becomes the tricky tightrope path teachers have to walk. To do this effectively teachers should be aware that in presenting new knowledge domains those domains need to be presented in sufficient detail to enable learners to become aware of whether they are likely to find it interesting and have some basis for discrimination. Teachers also should present the new domain material in a way that the learners will be sucked in to becoming interested in those domains. Other ways teachers might go about this is covered on this site under key 3 (fragile interest), key 8 (starting place), key 7 (intellectual contagion). Key 3 is concerned with preventing fragile naturally occurring interests from being lost. Key 8 is concerned with how interests grow out of what learners already know and connect with. Key 7 is concerned with techniques facilitators might use to evoke the formation of new interests in learners. Facilitators who wish to inspire students to be intrinsically motivated, to learn more and different areas of information than they are currently motivated to learn, can provide such inspiration by presenting the new information as part of a series of alternatives only after inspiring those learners to be interested. Only thus can they continuously evoke new intrinsic motivation in their students.

Too much choice. 

The body of human knowledge is already far greater than any single person could ever learn. Therefore the need to know, what is available to know, is thus becoming more and more important. More choices mean we can no longer afford the time to look for what is available to learn, or to look for the information itself, when we decide what we want to learn. Part of the job of a good facilitator (teacher) is to let us know what is out there in the way of information to be known and expose learners to it. If we do not know what is available to be known, we cannot begin to choose effectively. We need to be bombarded by what is available as often and persistently as we are bombarded by advertising. Remember as we become familiar with the options the choice becomes easy and a forgone conclusion.

However, no mater how familiar we become with the options, there is still so much information our there that we will still be confronted with options for which we have no knowledge or familiarity. Fortunately the very tool that is largely responsible for the information glut has also produced tools to help us deal with it. That tool is of course the Internet and the search engines we use to to pull down information from it. Any child who has grown up with the Internet knows how to go on line, type a few words into a search engine and bring up information on any conceivable subject. The problem is that the information brought up is of variable quality, accuracy and authority. What we want to know is right there, but we are not sure which is accurate and authoritative. We are not sure which is correct and which is nonsense. We can and do use common sense to sort this out but as pointed out elsewhere in this site common sense cannot be relied on. This is undoubtedly the most important problem for the coming generations to fix.

Barry Schwartz in his book "The Paradox of Choice" suggests that there are already too many options and too much choice, and that it is not just confusing but down right oppressive. From his point of view increasing the choice in what people can learn would be just pouring petroleum on the fire. There is some truth in this. Although the perception of choice is essential to autonomy and a string of other benefits such as health and happiness, it is, as already discussed, possible to have too much choice. The conscious mind can only handle a small amount of information. When unfamiliar with the options and they are small in number people are usually able to to make a satisfactory choices based on their own needs interests and desires. However, when it comes to large amounts of information to be considered in a choice and large amounts of options to choose from, we are at the mercy of our unconscious minds and our own level of expertise.


Our conscious minds rely on our unconscious minds to filter out most of the options before it can begin to make a choice. Or it may simply accept a choice provided by the unconscious mind. However, if the unconscious mind is unable to call on vast experience or expertise to eliminate or ignore most of the options, the conscious mind is simply flooded with options. Thus exposed to too many choices people tend to become overwhelmed and start making unsatisfactory choices. They may, as suggested above, no longer seem able to discern what they really like or enjoy. The whole business of choosing may go from being pleasurable to being unpleasant.

Help in choosing. 

Deci and Ryan and others have pointed out, true learning (that which is understood and not merely remembered), is dependent on intrinsic motivation which itself is dependent on the feelings of autonomy, and personal autonomy is dependent on the perception of un-constricted choice. Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar and her colleagues have scientifically investigated the importance of having choice have concluded the following:

"Despite the detriments associated with choice overload, consumers want choice and they want a lot of it. The benefits that stem from choice, however, come not from the options themselves, but rather from the process of choosing. By allowing choosers to perceive themselves as volitional agents having successfully constructed their preference and ultimate selection outcomes during the choosing task, the importance of choice is reinstated. Consider the request in Forbes' recent 'I'm Pro-Choice' article: Offer customers abundant choices, but also help them search." We now know how."

The long tail. 

In "The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson we discover that the Internet provides an unthinkably vast amounts of choice. There are good results and bad results that follow from this.

The best outcome that follows from this is that if you know exactly what you want it is likely you will find it. The big retail players on the net like Amazon, EBay etc. can afford to have and do have an almost limitless inventory. While they still sell best sellers they can stock, at almost no cost, books and recordings and any items at all, that have very low runs and sales potential. They can do this for two reasons. Firstly the inventory takes up no shelf space and can be reached with just a few clicks. Secondly the numbers of people browsing at EBay and Amazon number in the billions. It's not like a store in a big city where a few thousand wander through.

The bad outcome is of course the fact that, if you do not know what you are looking for, and you have to make a choice, there are increasingly so many options that the conscious mind is quite incapable of making anything like a good decision and is likely to be overwhelmed.


What tools are available to aid us in choosing wisely. 

However, in "The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson we discover that the internet provides, not only escalating enormous choice, but also offers the help customers need to make such choices. Non Internet retailers would be wise to follow as best they can with this sort of help. This can also conceivably be used to help learners decide what they want to learn and what they eventually might want to do as far as work and play are concerned. In his book Anderson had this to say:

"Online...the consumer has a lot more help. There are a nearly infinite number of techniques to tap the latest information in a market place and make that selection process easier. You can sort by price, by ratings, by date, and by genre. You can read customer reviews. You can compare prices across products and, if you wish head off to Google to find out as much about the product as you can imagine. Recommendations suggest products that 'people like you' have been buying, and surprisingly enough, they're often on target. Even if you know nothing about the category ranking best-sellers will reveal the most popular choice, which both makes the selection easier and also tends to minimize post-sale regret. After all, if everyone else picked a given product, it can't be that bad."

The failure of choice at schools.

Although schools are still the most important social institution for transmitting knowledge to the youth of society, they fail in addressing this glut of knowledge. They are particularly unsuited for dealing with this ever increasing and ever changing mass of information. Schools (not colleges or universities) still try to teach the same information to every student even though the information is growing at an exponential rate.

This results in students, trying to learn types of knowledge for which they have no interest in learning, and perhaps no desire to learn. The knowledge is not chosen by the student but is rather force fed to him/her by a teacher. This is like trying to sweep water up hill. To be truly interesting to a student and consonant with his desires, information needs to be packaged especially for that particular student. Students need information to be tailored to their interests and desires, so that the information will be both well learned, and made the best use of.

In his book "Future Shock" Alvin Tofler has this to say:

"One basic complaint of the student is that he is not treated as an individual, that he is served up an undifferentiated gruel, rather than a personalized product." Like the mustang buyer the student wants to design his own. The difference is that while industry is highly responsive to consumer demand, education typically has been indifferent to student wants. (In one case we say, 'the customer knows best'; in the other, we insist that 'Papa - or his educational surrogate - knows best.') Thus the student-consumer is forced to fight to make the education industry responsive to his demand for diversity."

Tofler thought that the students would win their fight and the need for diversity would overwhelm the schools by the year 2000. Such has not come to pass. The colleges and schools struggle on with their degrees and majors still out of step with what is happening in industry. Tofler's own concept of future shock, is I suspect, not the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future, but rather that, what we have been taught in schools, in no way prepares us for a future that is arriving exactly on time, just as it should.

Learning for the sheer pleasure of it or not.

We learn what we choose to learn but that in turn is governed by we want to learn. We tend to think of learning as learning for a purpose. We think we have to learn so we can make money, so we can get a good job, so we can live comfortably, but is that the only reason to learn? This site holds that there is a better reason for learning, and that is learning for the sheer joy of it. This could be learning for something specific such as part of a hobby or in a less specific general interest where choice is almost automatic, as in what ever attracts your attention or fancy is automatically chosen. Of course you may wonder why such choices might be considered choices at all.

Automatic choice guided by interest. 

This site holds that people are better off being guided in their choices and thus their learning by what they find to be enjoyable, because it is only with interest developed out of enjoyment that meaningful learning can take place. Not only that, but material learned through the influence of interest, requires less effort full attention and is far more easily recalled and connected to life on a concrete level. This kind of learning grows in a natural and unstructured way unhindered by limits and considerations of necessity.

Interest, choice of information or choice of interest.

Learning in the view of this site should be preferably done for its own sake, because a learner is interested in knowing about that particular information. But of course, if a learner is interested in some information he/she knows already what it is that he/she wishes to know. When one knows what one wishes to know there is no choice in that the choice is already made.

Choosing what to learn then is about two rather separate things:

  1. Choosing an interest from a buffet of options. On the one hand, it is about learning what is available to be learned and accessing which domains and items one might possibly find interesting. This is rather like choosing what to be interested in. Ideally a learner should be able to choose what subjects to learn. He/she should be able to choose not just what domains he/she is or might become interested in but also which bits of those domains and how much of each bit they are to learn. Learning options in schools should not be an undifferentiated gruel but rather a smorgasbord of tasty viands from which a learner may choose or not choose.

    The learner should be able to choose not just those subjects being taught by the school but also be able to study independently through the use of learning packages, Internet available information, and schools on the world wide web. If real choice is involved it is a kind of simple choice where one chooses the more interesting, over the less interesting.

  2. Choosing in order to accomplish a goal. On the other hand choosing what to learn is about learning in order to accomplish something, where the learning is not as important as the goal that can be accomplished if one learns it. For instance, a learner might wish to learn some specific skills in order to create something. Then again a learner might wish to learn in order to solve some problem that needs solving. One of the main reasons a learner might wish to learn is in order to procure a particular type of employment. Finally a learner might wish to learn certain things that would ensure a place at a particular university or college. An early choice of vocation may have a far reaching influence on what one learns at school or university.   

Choosing what to learn as preparation for a vocation.

Choosing what to learn as preparation for a vocation is very much confined by limits and consideration of necessary elements. Choosing a vocation first then limits what should be learned to a very large extent. Anything that is unnecessary to the particular vocation is automatically excluded. Such a way of learning, can not only go out of date quickly, but it can become creatively restricted also. That's because a lot of new creative material tends to come out of the interface where two or more fields of study overlap. This is not to say that people should not choose a vocation early and let the direction of their learning be guided by it. It just seems more conducive to learning to be guided by both the pleasure that comes from being interested, as well taking some guidance from the commitment of having chosen, at least tentatively, a vocation.


Do we choose a college or does a college choose us? 

We talk about students choosing a college, but in reality colleges choose students. If students had a real choice they would just choose the college they want and pay their money. Instead they have to apply and the college chooses if they are worthy or not.

Parents pushing.

This site has portrayed, how to make these choices as if they were simple, but they are not not. There are many factors weighing on students making these choices. Such forces can lead them far from these idealized concepts. Most parents seem to wish to push their children to study certain subjects, go to certain colleges, or prepare for a certain vocation. There is a big difference between a student choosing to emulate a parent because the parent is their role model, and the parent pushing a student into something he or she does not want to do.


Things can really become warped if learning is somehow twisted into being about status. In this case students in high school or college may decide to take certain subjects, not because they are pleasurable to learn, or because they are important in preparing for a vocation, but rather because those subjects will help them get into a high prestige college like Harvard or fit in at a college like Harvard. When they get into the college they may choose to study those subjects that are necessary to hold a position of high status in the college. Choosing to study these kinds of subjects can mean people end up trying to learn information that they find, neither pleasurable nor useful for any particular chosen vocation.

In vogue. 

In making a choice of vocation people often make bad choices by following what is currently popular or in vogue. However, vocations usually become fashionable at a point where it is no longer healthy for the society in which they occur. This can end up with the society being flooded with people qualified for certain jobs that are not available, because the job market has already been flooded with applicants that have taken the existing jobs.

Over supply and under demand in vocational choice. 

It is this kind of imbalance of vocational bottlenecks in society that cause societies to run inefficiently and there are ways in which society can make adjustments to correct the situations. They can offset over and under demand for certain types of employment, not by coercively restricting choice of vocation, but by giving choice a nudge in the right direction. Using Richard Thaler's idea of choice architecture this can be countered by schools and colleges promoting those vocations that are currently unpopular and downplaying those that are currently popular. This is assuming that schools and colleges are willing to act in the interest of society and not just in their own interest.


Increasing choice in college.

These days colleges have begun to provide students with much more choice and control over what they can learn. Despite the fact that Tofler's dream is still unrealized, people like Barry Schwartz have begun to see choice in college as distressing students with options which overloads the conscious brain and cause bad and self destructive decisions to be made. In his book "The Paradox of Choice" Schwartz had this to say:

"Today, the modern institution of higher learning offers a wide array of different 'goods' and allows, even encourages students - the customers - to shop around until they find what they like. Individual customers are free to 'purchase' whatever bundles of knowledge they want, and the university provides whatever its customers demand. In some rather prestigious institutions this shopping-mall view has been carried to an extreme. In the first few weeks of classes student sample merchandise. They go to a class, stay ten minutes to see what the professor is like, then walk out, often in the middle of the professor's sentence, to try another class. Students come and go in and out of classes just as browsers go in and out of stores in a mall. 'You've got ten minutes,' the students seem to be saying, 'to show me what you've got. So give it your best shot.'"

Although it is clear that this student determined learning has many problems and probably leads to some very bad choices, the advent of such choice is encouraging in enabling interest and intrinsic motivation. Trying to judge after ten minutes, is of course, not only rude, but very ineffective. In order to make a more constructive choice where there may be too many options, we need help. If we have expertise in making this kind of choice we are better off letting our unconscious mind make the decision. When we try to do this without sufficient experience and expertise we have to use our conscious minds which tend to concentrate on the wrong things, and so make bad choices. However, all this can be avoided and worked around by providing people with help in making choices as suggested above.

The curation of learning options in schools, colleges and universities.

Experts exist in every field you can think of and most recently experts in choosing among various options have become in high demand. There are various reasons for this. The number one reason being, the ever increasing amount of information amounting in the western world and thus the ever increasing numbers of options that become available to choose among. The second main reason is the poor preparation of people in western societies to be able to make such choices and deal with the overload of options. These experts in choosing are now in great demand because these are the new curators of information. Despite the algorithms on the Internet that can guide our choices as to what we are most likely to be interested in, despite the reviews of products that can also guide us in our choice of what interests us we are still likely to be overwhelmed by unfamiliar options. We are in great need of people with taste who can further limit our options to a manageable level. Such people are everywhere on the net and are thick in all forms of media.   

Unfortunately though, in the world of schools, collages and universities such curators of information are most notable for their absence. Of course to some extent student counselors have always been there to guide students in what might be best for them to learn but this is a poor effort in a new world awash with highly specialized curators of information. These days an old word 'curation' has become a new buzz word. The new curators of information are experts who can eliminate the extraneous options for us so lowering, the numbers of options we have to choose from, to a manageable level. Although such experts have popped up in many areas of information they are noticeably missing from schools colleges and universities where they are most needed. Student counselors are a pale shadow of what they could be.   

On line help when choosing what to learn at school and university. 

The kind of information that is available for help on line, namely, popularity, comparative prices, and reviews, could be applied to the choosing of fields, for learning for the pleasure of learning, and learning as preparation for a vocation etc. At present the Internet does not have a great deal of help to give with these kinds of choices, but that may change in the future if there is demand for it.

Student self help. 

Just as customers are finding ways to help each other make choices on the world wide web, there is much students could do to inform each other about the various courses that are available to them. A college newspaper where students could run reviews of teachers and courses is a place to start. A better idea might be a website where students could conveniently review professors and courses at their college.

Other help. 

Other sorts of help could come from independent reviews of courses by the equivalent of expert investigation at a consumer website set up to survey courses in colleges. On top of that there could be teacher reviews of each other's work and discussion by teachers about what they are trying to accomplish in their courses. These could be presented in magazines or on websites set up for the purpose.


Other kinds of websites etc. could be helpful in matching students with courses. Students could write in what they are interested in learning and the site would then match the student with available courses that seemed to match in some way. Alternatively professors could try to match themselves to students by pointing out to students how their particular course could satisfy their needs. Professors could also be required to present an extensive outline of their course to anyone interested. These could also be put on a website, and in a search able database, so that various courses could easily compared and evaluated against each other. Perhaps a special person could be employed at colleges who's job it would be to guide students through the various learning options and to make recommendations as to which courses might contain areas of learning that are associated with the areas each of the students are currently interested in.

Help in choosing a vocation so one can choose what to learn. 

The Schools and Colleges can, and to some extent do, try to provide students with help in both choosing a vocation and then making course recommendations based on that vocational choice. How can students be provided with a smorgasbord of vocations to choose from? There is a great under used resource in the world today that we call the elderly. Here we have large numbers of people who have just left the work force and who feel useless with nothing to occupy their days. Schools and colleges could make use of such a resource by inviting these people, who have a wealth of knowledge about the various vocations they just vacated, into the schools to impart such knowledge to the students. Other ways to know what is available to learn are to bring people together in the homes the work place and the schools. It would be possible to mix the young and the old. Young people have the new ideas to teach the old, and the old have experience to pass on to the young. The young must have greater and greater access to the work place without disturbing that work. If young people can not go to a workplace in reality, perhaps they can go there virtually. Instead of simulation games perhaps we could have simulation work. Also perhaps, people could be required to give a little of there time, say for a couple of weeks a year, to go into the schools and teach whatever they knew and enjoyed.

Choosing where to learn, when to learn, how to learn and who to learn from. 

Ideally students should make these choices themselves, but for the most part in western society, this is given lip service at most. Just as students need choice in what to learn to be intrinsically motivated to learn, choosing where to learn, when to learn, how to learn and who to learn from, all will make learning more pleasurable and thus more intrinsically motivating.

Choosing when, where or how to learn, and who to learn from, are really part of choosing what to learn. What we learn depends on where we learn, when we learn, how we learn, and from whom we learn. When we make these choices we are still deciding what we will learn.

Howard Gardner has made a case for students being able to choose how they learn based on the idea of people having different types of intelligence. While neuroscience tells us that our brains are structured to learn in different ways, Howard Gardner identified eight different ways in which people could be considered to be intelligent. He suggested that people would potentially be better able to learn, if information was presented in a form conducive to the type of intelligence they most typically exhibited.

Choosing how to be tested.   

One cannot address the importance of choice in learning without briefly touching on the idea that is mostly associated with choice in education, that being multiple choice in exams. Multiple choice is the worst way students can be tested, as it reduces knowledge to a guessing game where the student can give a correct answer and not have a clue. The only advantage of this kind of test is in the ease with which any moron can check it.

The three types of choice in learning.

Learning involves three important types of choice. There is choosing what to believe about one's ability to learn, there is choosing what domains and bits of information to learn, and there is choosing what strategies to use when learning.

Learning strategies and their choice. 

A great deal of learning is or should be trial and error learning. This kind of learning is called learning by doing, or discovery learning. When learning this way we act like scientists. We form theories, reframe them as hypotheses and test them. When we do this we are making choices as to which strategies are most likely to be useful in accomplishing a correct action. These sorts of choices are involved in learning how to solve problems, learning how to find information we do not have, and in understanding how the world works.

Unfortunately, in most of today's societies, teachers tend to try and circumvent this kind of learning by providing ready made strategies for solving problems, for finding information, and understanding how the world works. This is understandable, in that, all these strategies have been discovered by very clever people over time, and it seems natural that they should be able to be just passed on by telling without any need for rediscovery. However, this has the unfortunate effect of students having only a very tenuous grasp of how these strategies function, and so can only use them in highly defined situations. Without understanding why we do things a particular way and not a different way, a student finds him/herself unable to modify such strategies, for similar, though slightly different circumstances. The strategies become inflexible and the students lose their ability to adapt them creatively to other circumstances. When this happens learning becomes like a parlor trick or like a performing animal. The student can solve a problem, but has no idea how he/she has done it, and is completely incapable of generalizing the strategy to other problems.

Formulas in mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, geometry etc. can all be strategies for learning. But being able to gage these formulas against other strategies that do not work is actually essential for understanding them and learning. When we are deprived of making choices between these various strategies, we are being deprive of knowing why they work and why other strategies do not, thus we are deprived of understanding.

Of course the strategies involved in learning do not stop with the kinds of strategies mentioned above. There are many other strategy choices we must learn to make and do so by making our own choices. Elsewhere, we have considered the many environmental conditions others can use to make leaning be perceived by us as being attractive, to make learning contagious for us. All of those conditions are also choices we can make for our selves. Many of them such as choosing to make ourselves attend and directing ourselves to become interested in particular information we have already touched on. However, we can also make choices about what strategies to use to encode information to be understood and remembered. Likewise we can also choose strategies to enable ourselves to recall particular bits of knowledge. Like many other strategies, the use and choice of these ones depends on knowing the existence of them. More about all of this is to be found in the pages dealing with contagion and memory.

How to choose.

The neuroscience of choosing. 

There are many parts of the brain that are continually providing the brain with information, much of which is only conveyed to the conscious part of the brain via the emotions. These emotional unconscious parts of the brain, are in fact, the most important areas where the brain makes choices. That is to say, the most important choices we make are made by our emotions in our unconscious minds. These choices are made without much of it ever coming into consciousness, in the same manner as decisions are made by other animals. For a long while it was thought that logical decision making was the best kind of decision making. However, it is now recognized that it is the ability to know when to listen to the logical part of the brain, or go with the emotion, that makes us truly superior as decision makers.

Ways of choosing what to learn.

When considering what learners should choose to learn, other than what interests them, they can use a conscious logical method of choosing, or they can use the emotional intuitive method of choosing. They can also spend vast amounts of time making decisions comparing every aspect of options or they can decide almost instantly the way people do in in high pressure 'life and death' situations. How people make life and death decisions in real situations was investigated by Gary Klein and outlined in his book "Sources of Power". Klein and his team decided to observe people in situations where decisions and prompt action were indeed a matter of life and death and where there was little time to make them. What Klein and his team discovered was that most of these vital decisions were not performed by careful logical analysis, but were rather made by means of what felt right.

Conscious and unconscious choosing. 

It turns out that experience and expertise are not as integrated into the logical part of the brain as they are into the more primitive part of the brain that communicates to us mostly by means of emotion or feelings. We call this part of the mind the unconscious or sometimes the subconscious. Elsewhere in this site, most notably in the section called thin slicing, this type of decision making or choice has been elaborated on extensively. So here it will be dealt with only briefly.

The easiest way to understand how the unconscious works is to consider the learning of a skill. When you begin to learn a skill you have to use the conscious and logical part of the brain. In playing tennis for instance you have to think about how to hold the racket where you are going to hit etc. You have to think about all the things you have to do. If you do something badly you have to think of how to do it better. Gradually though, through trial and error you get good at doing these things. Many of these actions simply disappear from the conscious mind. They sink into the unconscious and become automatic or seemingly automatic. Thus you only have to think about how to weave these independent actions together into fluid motion of continuous action. But soon that too becomes automatic. At this point the conscious mind can mainly concern itself with strategies like looking for weaknesses in the other persons game or trying to upset the other player's concentration. This is of course a bit simplistic as all these processes are continuing all the time. The point, however, is that as we become expert at something we no longer have to give it conscious attention; it sinks to an unconscious level and becomes automatic. At the same time, the conscious mind tends to deal with the things we are doing badly, and tries to improve them. In his book "How We Decide" Jonah Lehrer talks about how these two systems work:

"One of the enduring paradoxes of the human mind is that it doesn't know itself very well. The conscious brain is ignorant of its own underpinnings, blind to all the neural activity taking place outside the prefrontal cortex. This is why people have emotions: they are windows into the unconscious, visceral representations of all the information we process but don't perceive. ...the brain always learns the same way, accumulating wisdom through error. There are no short cuts to this painstaking process; becoming an expert just takes time and practice."


Choosing how to choose. 

The important thing in making decisions or making choices is knowing which part of the mind to listen to when deciding or choosing. Do you listen to the conscious rational part or do you listen to the unconscious part and be guided by what feels right? The first rule in knowing this is that if you are an expert at something you should listen to the unconscious part of your mind and if you are a novice you should use the conscious and logical part of your mind. In his book "How We Decide" Jonah Lehrer puts it like this:

"But once you've developed expertise in a particular area - once you've made the requisite mistakes - it's important to trust your emotions when making decisions in that domain. It is feelings, after all, and not the prefrontal cortex, that capture the wisdom of experience."

Learning how to choose. 

The unconscious and the conscious parts of the brain both have serious flaws and the only way to compensate for these flaws is to somehow learn to choose wisely which part of the brain to listen to. In his book "How We Decide" Jonah Lehrer continues:

"And yet, this doesn't mean the emotional brain should always be trusted. Some times it can be impulsive and short sighted. Sometimes it can be a little too sensitive to patterns, which is why people lose so much money playing slot machines. However, the one thing you should always be doing is considering your emotions, thinking about why you are feeling what you are feeling. In other words, act like the television executive carefully analyzing the reactions of the focus group. Even when you choose to ignore your emotions, they are still a valuable source of input."

When to trust unconscious metal processing. 

Daniel Kahneman who is well known as a person who discovered many of the flaws in unconscious mental processing surprisingly worked together with Gary Klein to try to discover when rapid cognition could be trusted and when it could not. They concluded that the only way to make efficient use of rapid cognition, was to build a large well integrated database of knowledge in some domain or domains thus becoming highly skilled in that or those domain areas. Such people would thus develop a large database of various skills, especially the skill of recognition. Such skills they decided required two basic conditions. Such conditions could be used to identify whether the person had developed real skills and thus whether his/her rapid cognitions could be trusted.

1 "An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable." 

2 "An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice."        

A regular predictable environment is an environment where certain features repeat the same way each time. These are the normal aspects of the environment. The unconscious processor in the brain deals with some of these normal features automatically and suppresses the rest so that it can focus on those features that are abnormal. The unconscious part of the brain filters out a great deal of information so it is able to focus on information that is not normal, and alert the conscious part of the brain to help deal with it.

Prolonged practice means situations where learners can perform and get quick feedback. The slower a person gets feedback on his/her actions the more difficult it is to learn the skill. Also learning a skill is hampered by the number of variables involved which also increase with the time interval involved. 

Experts are truly highly skilled and can usually rely on their unconscious brain to provide highly accurate intuitive judgments in the area of expertise. This means a large mental inventory of what is normal in a domain and skills honed under ideal feedback conditions. Such experts are, for the most part, people who have learned in situations where normal features exist that can be ignored and where feedback is instantaneous. However, there are a few other conditions that should be kept in mind when deciding whether to use unconscious rapid cognition or conscious comparison and evaluation.

When to use rapid cognition.
  1. The unconscious mind requires real expertise. If you do not have expertise your unconscious mind will tend to make poor choices and produce poor decisions.

  2. The unconscious mind is much better at processing large numbers of options. It does this by eliminating most of the options. In other words our unconscious minds determine what is not relevant and abandons or ignores it. 

  3. The unconscious mind is better at choosing among the common sort of options we have encountered before. In other words the unconscious mind can only deal with situations that repeat. It builds up a vast selection of mental representations of what to expect and what not to expect that it can recognize instantly.

  4. The unconscious mind is better at producing new or novel solutions. Real creativity only takes place in the unconscious mind.

When to use conscious deliberation.
  1. The conscious mind can operate without real expertise. Of course it operates better with expertise.

  2. The conscious mind is good at processing small numbers of options. The fact is our conscious mind can only deal with small numbers of options. 

  3. The conscious mind is good at choosing among unprecedented options, ones we have not encountered before. No experience exists for such options so logic is the only recourse in discriminating between them.

  4. The conscious mind is better at producing or copying solutions that have been used before. It can access a goodly number of previous solutions given time.

Maximizers and satisficers.

Barry Schwartz says there are two sorts of people maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers always have to have the best. They have to make the best choice, find the best solution. This can be a big problem in choosing what to learn. As Schwartz says in his book, we all know people who do their choosing quickly and decisively and people for whom almost every decisions a major project. Maximizers are always struggling to compare every item they have to choose from against every other option in that range of choice. It takes them forever, they never feel they have chosen well, they usually regret their decision, and are much more likely to be unhappy. Satisficers on the other hand tend to be happy with good enough. They tend to check out a few options until they find one they like. They end up with a choice that is not the best but is good enough at that moment. There is no way of choosing the ideal subjects or the ideal items of information to learn. To be able do so would require perfect knowledge of the future. You would have to know in advance what you would want to be doing not now but at that time in the future. The fact is what we want to be doing in the future changes all the time especially while we are learning and preparing as students.  

Satisficers despite in some sense making poorer choices tend to be happier with their choices and feel less regret about their choices. Not only that, but they are much less likely to be overwhelmed by the many options in the world. It's a case of good enough being better for you than the best. Satisficers it seems are happier and healthier in every way compared to maximizers who tend to be miserable and overwhelmed. There are three possibilities you can choose something to learn that is good enough. You can pick the absolute best item for you to learn at that point. Or you can choose not to learn anything. Choosing to learn anything is better that choosing to learn nothing. Choosing the optimum thing to learn every time is time wasting and a drudge. Although making a choice that is good enough may seem to be eliminating those not chosen or considered, the fact is, we we can always change our minds later and choose some other option then.


Choosing to attend.

Choosing to learn using one of the methods described above is actually choosing to attend or focus on some type of knowledge. The fact is we cannot learn anything unless we focus on it or concentrate out attention on it. For most of the time in our lives, what we attend to, happens automatically. Sudden, violent and novel changes in the environment cause us to focus attention. This mechanism is part of our evolutionary survival function. However there is another way that activates this automatic focusing of attention, and that is our individual interests. If we are interested in something we automatically attend to it. In fact our sensory apparatus is sort of scanning the environment for information of particular interest to us just as it does for possible dangers. We do not have to choose to attend to these things we automatically attend to them.

On the other hand it is possible to intentionally choose to focus our attention on something and consciously force our attention on particular information in order to learn it. There are many reasons why we might do this. Parents teachers and other authority figures may be pushing us toward making a decision they want. If they provide us with a series of options to choose from, this has a greater chance of influencing us to become interested and intrinsically motivated, as explained previously. Other reasons why we might intentionally focus our attention on learning some type of information, that we are not yet interested in, is in order to solve a problem we wish to solve, or in order to accomplish something we wish to accomplish. We may choose to focus our attention on learning information in order to achieve some goal. Also as mentioned previously we may be required to choose from a collection of knowledge domains for which we have no previous experience and for which, as yet, no previous interest has developed.

While we can and do focus our attention in this way easily enough for short periods of time, this is difficult to do for long periods of time. This is why people fall asleep during lectures. They are trying to force their attention, but the mind simply disengages after a short time (about ten minutes) and without other stimuli to focus attention, the learner can find him/herself lapsing into sleep. Choosing to intentionally focus attention in this way does not automatically activate interest, but it does provide a chance for it to occur. It all depends on a learner becoming interested as the focused ten minute period proceeds. As explained earlier cognitive dissonance caused by making the choice assists in this endeavor.

Endnotes and conclusions.

Making choices when error is intolerable.

While there are no situations, while students are at school, where lives depend in the choices students make while learning, there certainly are such choices in life. Doctors, policemen, firemen, pilots etc. are continually making choices that cause people to live or die and they use their experience to make them. One would hope they gained this experience by in some way that did not initially involve people living or dying such as by simulating the situations safely as pilots do using a flight simulator. Such people are of course experts and the choices they make are mostly made by their unconscious brains. Where they use conscious deliberation it concerns very few options as speed in making a choice is essential.

We do not need to experience this level of anxiety at school. While choices we make at school do have consequences none of these consequences are irrevocable. We can always change what we are learning to suit where we want to go and what we want to do in life. Parents and teachers who impress on students the exaggerated importance of their decisions about learning are not doing them any favors. By making them feel their decisions are life and death they are simply making them feel guilty, anxious and miserable for no reason.

"Most of life is choices, and the rest is pure dumb luck." Marian Erickson

Learning how to choose what to learn. 

So when should we choose consciously what to learn and when should we let our choice of what to learn be guided by our unconscious minds? So there are many things that have to be taken into consideration when choosing what to learn.

Choosing for pleasure. 

The best kind of choice about what to learn is to learn what we are currently interested in because this will give us pleasure and insure real learning. In making this choice we should go with what feels right and use our unconscious intuitive abilities to guide us through the many options. However, this has a down side, in that what interests us changes all the time and if we change our choice often as our interests change this could lead to many starts with no continuing integrated understanding because of interest abandonment. This does happen somewhat with young children and a few unfortunate adults. Fortunately, for the most part, interests tend to grow stronger the more we learn and have pleasure associated with the interest. Also cognitive dissonance also contrives to improve our interest in subjects simply because we have made a choice to learn it.

 Learning to achieve the goal of our ideal vocation. 

The best kind of goal we can have in learning is the goal of enabling us to get the kind of job we want after we graduate. This, unlike learning for pleasure, is not easy to judge and we would be foolish indeed if we relied on unconscious intuition in making such choices. Unfortunately there are many options and we are not experts at choosing between them. We can use people who are experts to help us but only up to a point. Also, we have the same problem here with changing learning (horses in mid stream) too often, as our ideal vocation will usually change over time. The students that decide what they want to do early, and stick with it, have a distinct advantage. There are many choices involved with this option and because we mostly have to use conscious logical comparison we would well advised to try and keep the number of options we are considering each time to a minimum, make the decisions separately, and not try to decide every thing at once. "Which colleges do I need to get into in order to qualify for this vocation?" "What subjects do I need to pass or do well in, to get into one of those colleges?" "Do I really want to work in that vocation or is it just what my parents want for me?" If you lump all that into one big choice your brain will not be able to handle it, but as individual choices they are manageable.        

How choices develop life long learning.

The most important thing about choices is that they actively create and embellish intrinsic motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated this is constant as it derives from the action of learning. The pleasure and thus the motivation is intrinsic to whatever is being learned. It does not fade as extrinsic motivation does when external rewards and contingencies disappear. In his book "Why We Do What We Do" Edward Deci explains about watching seals perform:

" can get a glimpse of the problem even with the seals. Just as soon as the feeders disappear, so too do the entertaining behaviors. The seals no longer have interest in clapping their flippers together or waving to the crowd. Rewards may increase the likelihood of behaviors, but only so long as the rewards keep coming.

With our children, students and employees we typically hope that the desired behaviors will continue even if we are not there to toss them a fish."

Choices and their intrinsic motivation do just that, they keep us learning because the fish (pleasures) are intrinsic (always there) and so we remain motivated. If we get enough choices in our lives this intrinsic motivation will become attached to everything that we do and especially to all our learning. Our desire to learn new and interesting things far from fading will stay with us all our lives. We will become and remain life long learners.

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