On Student Autonomy

A recent tweet and my reply (along with the replies of others) got me thinking about students’ role in deciding curriculum, learning activities, and products through which they demonstrate their learning. Earlier in my career, colleagues and I spoke of “student voice and choice.”  

As with all dimensions of classroom organization and activity, there is a continuum of student voice and choice. If we give students complete control over what they study, how they study, and how they demonstrate their learning, then classrooms will be chaotic, inefficient, and in some cases dangerous. If teachers insist on complete control over classrooms, then they become uninteresting, stifling, and restraining. (Please do not object that “students need to learn the basics first.” I’m familiar with that rationale—even used it at times during my career—and have found the theoretical arguments unsound and the empirical evidence contrary.) 

In the middle, somewhere between chaotic and constraining classrooms, we find classrooms where learning is nurtured. It is my opinion that teachers should cede as much control to students as is reasonable given the circumstances. In my experience these are relevant circumstances: 

Safety: The more experience students have in laboratories, workshops, studios, and similar spaces, the better their education. In these spaces, they must properly use tools and instruments to ensure both their own safety and others’ safety and to prevent damage to the tools. Teachers in those spaces have knowledge of how to be safe in those spaces, and they have a responsibility to control the activity to ensure safety. 

Reduce frustration: While “struggle” is a necessary component of learning, too much struggke leads to frustration which inhibits learning.  Teachers must observe students, and both teach strategies for overcoming frustration and intervene when it prevents learning.  

Exceeding the bounds of knowledge: This circumstance is best illustrated with an example: Consider astrology (the idea that the arrangement of stars affects events on earth). Science teachers should control the curriculum to ensure students do not accept unscientific literature into their courses. While it may be accepted as a field that can be studied through scientific methods, the findings must be interpreted in terms of scientific theory. There may be other places where astrology may be appropriate curriculum (maybe in social science classes, maybe as creative writing activities), but science teachers have a responsibility to teach science, even if students (or others) prefer non-scientific ideas. 

Educators must use care in setting the limits of knowledge as well. While they are expected to teach “the standards,” teachers must recognize they are artificial, and may restrict students in many circumstances. 

Fundamentally, this post is about student autonomy. When students have autonomy, they make decisions about their learning. Autonomy is grounded both is decisions made about the classroom and curriculum” students must be given permission to make these decisions. They must also have the capacity to accomplish what they want. For teachers, creating a classroom that gives students autonomy means they teach students what they need and give them space to apply what they learn in interesting and engaging (to them) problems and questions. This needs to be integrated into studies throughout their career in schools. 

Even the youngest students can engage in their own studies; teachers must respect that reality and give some control to them. Perhaps the greatest advantage of doing this is what we learn about and from our students.