In accepted and appreciated by those we consider

In this lesson, we investigate the work of the American psychiatrist William Glasser and his pioneering choice theory and how to apply it in a classroom setting.

Glasser’s Choice Theory

In life, there are needs and there are wants. For example, I need to drink water to live, but I might want to have a cola or a beer instead.

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Cola and beer are things that I like, but they’re not necessary to my survival. Physiologically speaking, needs and wants are rather clear-cut, but the difference between needs and wants in a psychological sense is up for debate. In this lesson, we’ll explore what the psychiatrist William Glasser considered to be social needs, and we will examine how his approach can be applied in the classroom.

Choice Theory

Born in 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, William Glasser was an American psychiatrist who held considerably different beliefs than many psychiatrists of his time. He originally studied to be a chemical engineer, but Glasser went back to school in 1947 to become a psychiatrist. Over the course of his career, Glasser published extensively on behavioral psychology and educational techniques, and he developed his own style of therapy called reality therapy.

This unique therapy eschewed the idea of mental illness and instead advocated teaching patients to take responsibility for their behavior, encouraging them to take real steps to improve their circumstances.Glasser is perhaps best known for his 1998 book, Choice Theory, which details his perspective on how humans behave and what motivates us to do the things we do. According to this theory, a person’s immediate needs and wants, not outside stimuli, are the deciding factor in human behavior. Moreover, Glasser identifies five basic social needs that all humans have:

  • Survival
  • Love and belonging
  • Power
  • Freedom
  • Fun

Survival encompasses our basic physiological needs, such as water, shelter, food, and the like.

The other four needs are necessary for our psychological well-being. Love and belonging (that is, feeling accepted and appreciated by those we consider our closest friends and family), is considered to be the most important of these. Without love and belonging, Glasser argues, the other three psychological needs are virtually unattainable.According to choice theory, all of our actions stem from these five basic physiological and psychological needs.

Our total behavior, as Glasser terms it, is made up of acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology. While all four of these have an impact on our behavior, people only have control over how they think and how they act.Glasser’s choice theory places most of the onus for our actions and day-to-day behavior on our choices, not our circumstances. In this way, Glasser’s approach conflicts with mainstream psychiatry and psychology, both of which pathologize many behavioral disorders. In contrast, Glasser believed that mental illness could only be said to exist if a doctor could confirm physiological anomalies in a person’s brain.

Classroom Applications

This is all interesting to think about, but what, if anything, can Glasser’s theories do for us in our classrooms? Fortunately, in addition to his work in psychology, Glasser also wrote extensively on education, and he and his followers have come up with some suggestions for translating his theories into classroom techniques.In a choice theory-based classroom, students should largely be allowed to make their own choices about what to learn, and they should be encouraged to explore new topics.

The shift from a curriculum-based approach requires a change in grading as well; students should be graded on their competency, their utilization of the resources available to them, and their ability to apply what they have learned, rather than on rote memorization of facts.The role of the teacher in a choice theory-based classroom is to encourage the students and to facilitate their studies, not to be a taskmaster as in a traditional classroom. Teachers should be more concerned with their students learning the skills they will need once they leave school rather than focusing on mastering facts.

A choice theory teacher’s primary concern is encouraging the students to develop strong communicative and interpersonal skills which will help them to build healthy and long-lasting professional and personal relationships later in life. It’s also important to foster critical thinking skills that can be adapted to various disciplines and real-world problems.Of course, many teachers will be restricted by the curriculum they have to teach. However, the essentials of choice theory-based education can still be implemented in a traditional setting by emphasizing the importance of one’s own actions and reinforcing that each student is solely responsible for the choices he makes. For example, a teacher can allow students to study material at their own pace while still maintaining regularly timed exams by making sure students are aware of the exam dates well in advance.

Lesson Summary

William Glasser‘s important psychological theories are encapsulated in his 1998 book, Choice Theory.

According to Glasser, humans have five basic needs upon which our behavior depends. One need is survival; the other four are social needs. The most important of these are love and belonging, without which the others are unattainable.Though our behavior is affected by these needs, the only things we can truly control are how we act and how we think. Glasser believed his theories could be applied in classrooms by allowing students to largely guide their own learning and ensuring that they understand the importance of such responsibility. A choice theory-based classroom emphasizes the teaching of important life skills, like interpersonal and critical thinking skills, over the rote memorization of facts.


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