We all like autonomy. The feeling of freedom and being in control. The classroom is no different. Students are more engaged and have a greater sense of responsibility when given autonomy over their learning. They thrive when they are given opportunities to investigate their passions and areas of interest and share these ideas with others. Even the illusion of autonomy is enough to ignite the curiosity spark within us all. Self-determination theory of motivation developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan provides a useful framework to understand autonomy in the classroom. Essentially, one of the key ingredients required to create motivated students is autonomy. Richard Ryan classified teachers into two groups: those who are “autonomy supportive” and those who are “controlling”. They then investigated the impact of the teacher’s motivational style on student achievement. The results were significant:

“We saw that even within the first five weeks of the school year, if you were in a classroom of a teacher who was a more controlling in his or her strategies for motivating, that not only did children feel less able to do schoolwork and less interested in doing their schoolwork, they wanted lower levels of challenge, they wanted things to be easier in the classroom because they didn’t want to make mistakes…If you had a teacher, on the other hand, who was autonomy supportive, children increased in their engagement in classroom and their interest and their desire for challenge and they felt better about themselves… And those results were pretty dramatic. It showed us just how powerful a classroom environment can be on a child’s motivation and wellness.”

So how to create conditions for authentic autonomy in the classroom? How to ensure that you’re an “autonomy supportive” teacher? One way is to provide students with choice, no matter how small. For example, giving choice in drama class over whether to write a script or create storyboard is empowering. Ultimately, the product is the same, but the student has chosen their own path to the destination. On a larger scale, some of the most impressive, creative and autonomous work comes from project based or student led learning projects. For example, I recently witnessed a group of students design their own creative and innovative solution to Sydney’s public transport woes – futuristic train pods! Students were briefed on this very real problem and they were eager to take up the challenge and design their own sustainable solution. These students were able to work independently, free of the shackles of structured, stagnant, traditional classroom learning. As a result, the students were proud of their work, had a sense of ownership and created something they were passionate about. Of course, not all institutionalized schooling can be administered in this way, but it is a welcome breath of fresh air that will genuinely strengthen the students’ real selves, rather than perpetuating their false or over-adapted selves.

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Introduce autonomy in classrooms and organisations and people will think broadly

While some students prefer more autonomy than others, giving the class the option to learn independently allows those who enjoy autonomy to flourish. Moreover, students who require additional support and guidance are quickly identified by the teacher and then assisted to complete the task. Teachers are experts in reading social situations – they exercise their professional judgement constantly to determine if students understand concepts or if adjustments in teaching are required. Thus, teachers are able to quickly determine who becomes overwhelmed (or even paralyzed) by choice, and therefore requires additional assistance. They are then able to help students to narrow their thoughts into a clear and coherent idea, through chunking or by providing guiding questions.

Comment by PIOTR JUSIK (international educator, coach & counsellor)

My experiences of creating student engagement were somewhat similar and somewhat different. For a number of years I worked with angry and challenging students excluded from school. We had chairs and tables flying across the classroom. One could think that the most pressing matter was to ensure class compliance, but this was only part of story. I never thought that genuine learning could be a product of regurgitating teacher-led versions of reality. I wanted to know, to understand and connect with my students, so that we could learn to be together. It was a long and arduous journey; however, with time, the students did develop autonomous and self-driven attitudes. Only then did they stop roaming aimlessly around school corridors. I had a clear sense that carrots and sticks were not sufficient to bring about high quality thinking.

What were the factors that contributed to this climate of achievement? Self-determination theory of motivation developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan provides a useful and innovative way to understand factors that spark action-oriented behaviours. Essentially, the theory states that humans need autonomy, competence and relatedness to maintain their motivation. Easier said than done. What did this mean for me? Well, I insisted that each student was capable of thinking (competence) and that they would live with the results of their actions (autonomy). That was not enough. I also shared a sense of sadness when a pupil wanted to systematically undermine their abilities, either by unjustified self-deprecation or by ignoring the class all together. Some of these kids were wonderful adults-to-be and they needed to be told that they mattered (relatedness). They mattered to me because we shared a huge chunk of the day together and I wanted to work with them, rather than processing them through the machine of the education system. I had acknowledged that these students are competent, independent individuals who wanted their unique ideas to be heard and, as such, I had fostered a sense of autonomy.

By Piotr Jusik and Kate Taylor. The authors have worked in varied and dynamic educational settings in Australia, the UK, Poland and Guatemala.

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