A Straight A Student: Autonomy

Emerald Connection, January 30th, 2023

This is the third of a four part series of articles about The Straight A Student.  If you missed the prior articles in this series, you can go back and read them (and many other past posts) here.  This week, I would like to continue exploring what makes for strong student connections and success in school by writing about autonomy, the third “A.”

Autonomy, or self-direction, is a critical motivator for humans.  While we are all willing to comply with other’s wishes and directions to varying degrees, most humans produce far better when they are given autonomy to make decisions.  We should strive to create more opportunities for autonomy for our kids and relinquish control when we don’t need to exercise it.

In schools, the most extreme version of this is found in wholly self-directed learning.  Students are asked to make and communicate a plan each day and receive mentoring on their work, but are trusted, even from a young age, to make decisions largely on their own.

This model has strengths and there are certainly some children that succeed in such a model, but this also goes against what we know about human development.  We shift from complete dependence as infants to relative independence as we age.  There is no switch when we suddenly become independent.  Therefore, as we educate or raise young people, we are constantly finding balance between offering choice and freedom WHILE providing guidance.

Given that students that experience autonomy in school do make better connections and achieve better, I believe the best path is to continue to work towards autonomy.  Here are some ways that this happens at the Emerald Campus:

  • Support: We ask our students from Kindergarten up to take care of their own winter gear and prepare themselves to come in and out of the building WHILE we also help them to problem-solve and manage time and themselves when they are stuck or struggling.
  • Structure: In Jen’s ELA class, as students prepared to read in book groups, she gave the students a choice of titles WHILE she had curated this range of pre-selected titles to yield the kinds of discussions she wanted them to have about books.
  • Reflection: In the weekly math roundtables in Doug’s class, students ask their own questions, give their own feedback, offer their own critiques, and suggest peer grades WHILE Doug facilitates those conversations and concludes them by explaining his own observations and evaluation decisions.

Working towards autonomy is not leaving kids to make decisions alone.  It requires our faculty to provide support, structure, and reflection as students learn.

You know that getting to autonomy takes time and varies from task to task and day to day.  To support the goal of autonomy in our kids, we need to attend to our school norm: be intentional.  Sometimes, we just need to relinquish control and make more space for their voice, their choice and their responsibility.  However, we also need to consider how and when to provide support, structure, and reflective opportunities that will help our kids become self-directed given that most of them are not there yet.

Take care of yourself and others,

Greg Friedman
K-8 Director