Making Space for Autonomy

peanuts_essay.jpgOne of my goals for this year is to broaden my focus beyond my single classroom to the bigger, broader picture of education. I’m contemplating what future moves I’d like to make within the education field and am recognizing that I will probably never be content with just focusing the whole of my attention on the group of students assigned to me during a particular year. Taking a course on education last fall and getting to grapple with ideas and research has reinvigorated my desire to enter the classroom each day as a scientist, an experimenter who explores and advocates for ways to transform our traditional model of education.

In my course last fall, we read excerpts from Daniel Pink’s Drive — having read the book before, this offered an opportunity to revisit the text with an education-specific lens. What has stuck with me and perplexed me for months is the emphasis that the text places on autonomy as a critical component of motivation. (Mastery and purpose are the other two legs to the stool of motivation that Pink describes.) I was particularly struck by a passage comparing the difference between “autonomous motivation” and “controlled motivation,” which I’ll share here:

“Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice […] whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self” (Deci & Ryan, cited by Pink, p. 90).

When I read this, it seems clear to me that most of what we offer to students of all ages in education is the latter concept, “controlled motivation.” We tell students what to do, when to do it, and typically outline or at least imply what the consequences (punishments) will be for failing to complete the task in a certain way and within a certain time frame. Often, we do these things while claiming to be “student-centered,” arguing that we are responding to our students’ interests and needs while still dictating nearly every moment of their time in the classroom. Or, we give students a non-choice, “Well, you can choose not to do this now, but then x, y, or z.”

While there are probably few circumstances in education where we could offer students complete “autonomous motivation,” I certainly think that there are changes that we can make to at least restore some autonomy back to students. Even in thinking about the non-academic parts of the day in my school, I am staggered by the control the adults in the building exercise in the name of order and convenience. For example, during breakfast in the cafeteria each morning, students must sit by class, their only options for activities are eating or talking to one another, and you have to keep your dirty and empty food containers in front of you until you are given permission to throw your garbage away. Surely this amount of control is unnecessary — I can’t imagine adults agreeing to eat a meal under such arbitrary conditions. And this is just one small part of a school day, a day that I would argue is governed from start to end by similar unnecessary usurpations of  student autonomy.

Significantly, research suggests that making autonomy-enhancing changes in school would be worthwhile, as numerous studies demonstrate that the more autonomy we can give to students, the better the outcomes. In a synthesis of the research, Pink concludes that increased autonomy “promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, [and] enhanced persistence at school” (p. 90 – 91). There is also a citizenship argument here as well, articulated well by my favorite educational contrarian, Alfie Kohn, in an article called “Choices for Children” (1993):

“One is repeatedly struck by the absurd spectacle of adults insisting that children need to become self-disciplined, or lamenting that ‘kids just don’t take responsibility for their own behavior’ — while spending their days ordering children around. The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it.”

It seems clear that preserving students’ autonomy at all levels of schooling is a noble goal — one that is worthy of deeper exploration. This month, I’m making restoring as much autonomy as possible to my students my main focus for experimentation. In Drive, Pink argues that there are four components to creating an environment where autonomous motivation can flourish — providing autonomy over “what people do (task), when people do it (time), how they do it (technique), and whom they do it with (team)” (p. 94-95). In a post later this week, I’ll be exploring some changes that could be made to restore autonomy to students in each of these areas. I hope you’ll join me in thinking critically about ways to promote autonomous motivation in our schools.

Work Cited:
Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan: September 1993.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

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One thought on “Making Space for Autonomy

  1. Great reflective post, Nicole. I really like the quote from Kohn. It must challenge thinking, if nothing else. I think it is great to give children some autonomy. As Kohn says, how can we expect them to be responsible if we don’t allow them to be responsible. Negotiating at least some aspects of the curriculum should be possible.

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