One time I began the year with that statement when one of my bolder students blurted, “So can I hit her?”
“You could tell me not to,” he replied.
“But if you really wanted to hit her you could still do it the moment I turned my back. So you can do that if you are willing to accept the consequences of your actions.”
“What are the consequences?” he asked.
“What do you think they should be?”
“I think you should expel me!” he said.
“Okay,” I replied. “If you hit her, I’ll have you expelled.”
“Then I’m not going to hit her,” he concluded.
“Then there will be consequences for that too,” I reminded him.
“What will happen if I don’t hit her?” he asked.
“You won’t be expelled,” I explained.
The student was exercising his autonomy. There was a time in my teaching career when I assumed that it was my job to control my students completely, and I can understand how I came to that conclusion. I was even good at it. I became very assertive, (that’s a nice word for it), and maintained an iron control in my classroom. Then whenever I had a substitute, I came back to horrendous reports about my students’ behavior. I couldn’t understand how these well-behaved children could turn so quickly.
Eventually I realized that even though I was responsible for my class, I had never taught them to be responsible for themselves. Unless they had learned that at home, they were completely unprepared to own their behavior. I had succeeded: I was in control, and when I left, there was no control.
I then saw that the best way I could manage the classroom environment was to teach them to manage themselves—to take responsibility for their actions. In essence, I needed to give them autonomy: the ability to control their pathway.
That was a scary thought, and I tripped often along that journey. But eventually I learned how get control of my classroom by giving up control.
Autonomy occurs when an individual has control of their decisions and understands how to manage that control to their benefit. Before we talk about how we teachers can help students develop autonomy, I want to talk about why we should want to do so.
An argument could be made that when the teacher maintains rigorous control there is less opportunity for failure. The teacher is older and wiser, so why not let all the decisions rest in the hands of the capable adult? Autonomy in the hands of an adolescent can be messy.
Research shows that when students have autonomy they are more engaged in learning. (Reeve, 2005) They also exhibit more positive emotions (less behavior problems). They accept more challenging tasks, achieve higher academically, and tend to stay in school longer. Of most interest to me is the fact that they have better conceptual understanding. Rote learning can occur in a strictly enforced environment, but conceptual learning flourishes in an autonomous setting. As we adopt the Common Core State Standards, this development of conceptual understanding is crucial.
Another study by Reeve, Jang, and Ryan of South Korean high school students shows that autonomy is second only to subject competency as a predictor of a satisfying learning experience. Further, a lack of autonomy is the number one predictor of an unsatisfying learning situation. Competency is third in that area. This tells us that while competency is the primary indicator of a successful learning experience, a lack of competency doesn’t prevent such success, but a lack of autonomy can. (Jang, Reeve, and Ryan, 2005)
So how do we foster this autonomy in our students? Reeve lists four strategies:
· Nurturing inner motivation
· Using informal language
· Promoting value
· Recognize that negative reactions are normal reactions to challenges and constraints.
Reeve also lists strategies that foster each of these four points. Inner motivation is developed by tying instruction to student interests and enjoyment. Recently I had to teach a lesson on geometry transformations. I began by showing a You Tube video of an animation process that incorporates such mathematics in the graphics. Motivation is also fostered by providing students with choices. The young man mentioned in the opening anecdote realized that it was his choice that governed how he would behave in class, and so he chose not to hit another student. Lastly, and somewhat surprisingly, challenge is also a motivating factor. Your students’ brains actually prefer to be challenged. The opposite of that is boredom, and we all know what behavior that encourages.
Informal language is non-controlling, informational, and flexible. We can also see this illustrated in the opening example. Back in my days of trying to control every movement in class, that student probably would have taken the first opportunity to hit someone when my back was turned.
We can promote the value of a lesson by explaining its application to their lives. I once watched a teacher at a juvenile hall telling his students about his investment portfolio. Some of the students were highly engaged in his stories. They asked questions so they could learn how to turn an investment into riches. They even asked to borrow the books that he referenced. Then he put his personal stories aside and began teaching the math standard of the day and lost every student. While we must teach current standards, our job is to relate their importance and application to the students. They need to see the value in the lesson.
Lastly, we should expect some pushback. Typically when students resist, I put up threats and warnings. It’s better to expect some resistance; these are after all students and not adults. Instead of threatening students with consequences for such behavior, I’m learning to give clear directions and explain goals ahead of time, then remind and encourage during the activity while suggesting correct behavior and engagement and praising examples I see. Then as a follow up we analyze the process and think of improvements for next time.
Autonomy is not easy, and as I said earlier, it can be messy, but autonomy should not be equated with anarchy or a lack of structure. In fact students perform best in an environment high in both autonomy and structure. Take away either of these factors and performance suffers. Take away both and only the most motivated students will excel.
Jang, H, Reeve, J, and Ryan, R. (2005) What underlies a positive, satisfying learning experience for South Korean high school students. Manuscript submitted for publication
Reeve, J. (2005) How teachers can promote students’ autonomy during instruction: lessons from a decade of research. Iowa Educational Research and Evaluation Association Annual Conference