Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Chicken Bowl

The food court at our new high school is magnificent.  Hands down, if you're looking for a quality meal that is THREE (count'em THREE) dollars, the high school is the place to be.

When our new building opened in September, 2012, gone were the two option lines, and what appeared was options every day for "Classic Favorites" , "Taste of Italy", "Make Your Own Sandwich/Salad" and "Fresh Off the Grill."  Many options, something for everyone, and the food is G-O-O-D.  Lunch is a happy time, and people talk about the food rather than just using it for nourishment for the second half of the day.

An odd thing happens, though, on the "most favorite" meal day -- CHICKEN BOWL.  Suddenly, there are few choices.  Taste of Italy is serving Chicken Bowl.  Classic Favorite is serving Chicken Bowl.  Fresh off the Grill -- you guessed it, Chicken Bowl.  There is such a high demand that options virtually disappear, sans the salad/make your own line.  

The weird thing is that fewer choices seems, in the case of the almighty chicken bowl, to generate more excitement than greater options.  On Chicken Bowl Days, there is actually an influx of staff to keep the kids from RUNNING to lunch.

The Choice is Paralyzing?

Here's the weird thing to me.  Why are kids happier when we give them fewer choices?  Certainly, one could argue the intense sodium level contained in chicken, gravy and mashed potatoes - not to mention shredded cheese and corn goodness -- is enough to warrant an outright sprint to the front of the lunch line.  But I've noticed the same thing in my classroom, and heard it from colleagues.

When kids are given free rein over their products and assignments, they FREEZE.  The same happens with adults, as Barry Schwartz points out in his book Paradox of Choice .  Americans, in general, are happier with fewer choices when purchasing both large and small things.  Infinite or large quantities of choices results in people delaying purchases, or walking away frustrated rather than gratified.

Which, if you think about it, makes very little sense.  America is the land of opportunity.  A land of infinite possibilities and choices.  But we, as a society, have chosen to favor, instead,  direct and specific parameters.

In schools, kindergarten kids are instructed as part of their recess.  Some education guru made a recommendation that recess is "downtime" and that instructional time could be captured from this perceived waste of time.  (The offshoot is that those kids get to first grade and have no social  mediation skills -- but nobody thought of the intrinsic skills of free play.)

In classrooms, when kids are given open-ended assignments, they literally beg for structure.  "Define what this should look like" is the plea.  They've spent so much time responding to prompts and answering to pre-designed rubrics that they don't even know where to start when given the challenge to create and present based on personal choice, knowledge, and design.  They are figuratively standing in the cereal aisle challenged by the varieties, often choosing nothing.

We have a responsibility to teach our kids to advocate for themselves, define where they are, and beat their own personal record bests and to stop trying to make something "just like the sample" of satisfy everything on the rubric to "get it done."  Our current system doesn't allow for much of this, mostly because data drives everything, and it's difficult to grade something that exceeds expectations.  (Or is it? Hmmm).

I'd like to see classrooms full of kids with the same kind of excitement for learning and engagement as exists on Chicken Bowl Day.  The fact that we aren't actively looking for a change in our classroom menus is disheartening to me.  So today I assigned an open ended project.  Kids left frustrated and confused.  So far, none of them are running the OPPOSITE direction, so there's hope.

Stay tuned.