William Glasser’s Choice Theory and Reality Therapy

by Gurucharan 
NERI, Ananda Palli Master Unit, Australia

William Glasser, an engineer turned psychiatrist and counsellor, has become an extremely influential force in the shaping of educational thought and has developed a world wide infrastructure to develop and implement his ideas and methods in schools. His “The William Glasser Institute” based in California now has branches in an increasing number of countries around the world. He is the author of twenty books, at least five of which deal specifically with education. His wife, Carleen Glasser, has also written a number of student activity books for learning Choice Theory in the classroom.Schools which embrace Glasser’s educational model are entitled to seek accreditation, through The William Glasser Institute, as a Quality School.

To gain an understanding of Glasser’s approach and methodology one needs to become familiar with the core concepts of Choice Theory, Reality Therapy and Quality.

The fundamental paradigm of William Glasser’s Choice Theory is that all behaviour is, either consciously or unconsciously, chosen. The basis for any given choice is the desire to move from the pain of unfulfilled needs to the pleasure of fulfilled needs. He specifies five basic needs: survival, power, fun, freedom and love and belonging, the latter being the most important. All behaviour is the result of an individual’s desire to satisfy one or more of these needs and is internally motivated, purposeful, flexible and creative. Glasser also specifies that all behaviour is ‘total behaviour’ and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology. Of these, the first two components are always voluntary whereas the feeling and physiology can only be changed by the individual making changes in acting and thinking.

The choices an individual makes at any time are aimed at developing a parallelism between the outer, real world and the individuals inner, unique Quality World. This Quality World consists of pictures of those experiences, people, animals, plants, places and objects which have given the individual pleasure since shortly after birth and is continually undergoing modification as the individual has new experiences. For example, consider two people sitting down together to plan a holiday. Francis wants to go to a tropical beach and swim, sunbathe and collect shells. However Asha does not like the beach but wants to go bushwalking and mountain hiking. Further investigation reveals Francis went on holidays with parents to the beach as a child and remembers these as magical times. Also Francis’ sole experience of bushwalking was a school excursion during which it rained all the time and leeches had to be removed at the end of it. Asha, on the other hand, equates beaches with sunburn but had many enjoyable mountain hikes with a parent while growing up. From Glasser’s Choice Theory perspective, Francis had needs for love and belonging and fun satisfied by beach visits as a child. The beach is, therefore, a significant part of his Quality World. For similar reasons, bushwalking is a part of Asha’s Quality World. For these two individuals to have an enjoyable holiday together, they will need to find a solution that has components in both their Quality Worlds.

From Glasser’s viewpoint, if a teacher, or learning itself, is not in a student’s Quality World then that student will have a very difficult time at school.

Glasser’s concept of Quality is also extended to an individual’s perception of their activities in the real world especially in the educational arena. In fact he advocates that students be taught from their first years of schooling to have a concept of quality in their lives and work. By quality, Glasser means a self-evaluated sense of the completeness and value of the task one is engaged in. Thus quality work is not measured to an external benchmark but an internal one and it is the responsibility of educators to nurture the student’s innate sense of how well a task has been done, whether it could be improved upon and her or his own satisfaction with it. Glasser stresses to teachers that in teaching students quality, they should only ask students to do work that is useful and constructive (quality work can never be destructive and always feels good). Once students develop an understanding of quality and begin to nurture their own innate sense of it, they will be intrinsically motivated to perform to the best of their ability. Learning will become part of their Quality World.

Reality Therapy is a form of counselling that encourages the individual being counselled to look for solutions to problems by changing his or her own behaviour. It uses a process of strategic questioning to initially help the person to find out what he or she really wants out of the problematic situation and then to assist the person in developing a personal plan to achieve it. Fundamental to Reality Therapy is the belief that the only behaviour a person can change is their own and that they need to take responsibility for this if they want to be happy. It emphasises that individuals need to choose their own futures by living and planning in the present.

Reality Therapy is a very powerful form of counselling that requires considerable training and skill to use effectively. Essentially the therapist or teacher trained in Reality Therapy, through the strategic questioning process, holds up a mirror so that individual can see more clearly what he or she really wants and whether his or her own behaviour is moving them closer or further away from that.

For adherents Choice Theory and Reality Therapy offer strategies that demonstrate an effort to develop a rational approach to conflict resolution, success and daily living. In fact for some it is a code by which they live their lives. In many schools its core concepts and practices are taught from Grade One as part of values and society building education. One school principal I spoke to believed Glasser to be the most important person born in the twentieth century and told me that his ideas were the only hope for a desperate humanity.

Yet examination of Choice Theory from a Neohumanist perspective reveals significant flaws both socially and theoretically. Despite the well thought out strategies and methods, Glasser’s approach offers no genuine social solutions. While suggesting that the world would be a better place if everyone took responsibility for their own behaviour and made more positive and ‘connecting’ behaviour choices, it lacks a sense of that ‘endeavour to advance towards the ultimate reality by forming a society free of all inequalities, with everyone of the human race moving in unison’ (Liberation of Intellect p 38). P.R. Sarkar calls this endeavour Sama-sama’ja Tattva, the Principle of Social Equality and further notes, ‘Any theory contains the seed of well-being if its apparent foundation is Sama-sama’ja Tattva (Principle of Social Equality)’ (Liberation of Intellect p 40). Instead, Choice Theory promotes enlightened self-interest where individuals negotiate and choose behaviours to fulfil their wants and needs without any broader reference to a social context.

Choice Theory also discounts the notions of vrittis (propensities) and sentiments as a basis of behaviour but rather emphasises that all behaviour is ultimately the result of the individual’s desire to satisfy the five basic needs mentioned above: survival, power, fun, freedom and love and belonging. Instead, sentiments are confused with feelings which arise from either satisfying or not satisfying the basic needs. Glasser’s lack of recognition of the power of sentiments (for example, devotional sentiment on the positive side and geo and socio sentiments on the negative side) to influence behaviour, is a fundamental flaw. As a result Choice Theory becomes a kind of self-interested self management process prone to what P.R. Sarkar calls ‘Atma-sukha Tattva’, the Principle of Selfish Pleasure.

Despite these flaws, Neohumanist educators can gain much in the way of practical strategies and skills from Choice Theory and Reality Therapy methodology. They are practical and well thought out and can be used and built upon benevolently and effectively. The lead management versus boss management approach to behaviour management, the emphasis on quality work, the Reality Therapy questioning methodology for conflict resolution, the seven connecting habits versus the seven disconnecting habits* – all of these are worth a deeper look.

Editors Note:
* The seven connecting habits are listening, respecting, encouraging, supporting, accepting, trusting and always negotiating disagreements and the seven disconnecting habits are being critical, threatening, complaining, blaming, nagging, punishing and bribery.