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Fostering Autonomy at School

Posted By Jenny Aanderud, Friday, January 22, 2016
Like adults, students of all ages need to feel like they have some control over important aspects of their lives. Fostering autonomy--appropriately for a student's age--is one of the most powerful things educators can do to enable social, emotional, and moral development. Because a sense of autonomy is a human need, both the student and the school environment will suffer without its appropriate development. Here are the three areas educators can best explore for autonomy's development:
Offer students choice:
* regarding which assignment to do, or how it is done, or when the assignment's "due date" is.
* regarding whether to work alone on a particular assignment, or as a team.
* regarding how to show mastery of a concept or body of material.
* regarding how to spend time after an in-class assignment is done.

Help students develop voice...
...and respect that voice. (Of course the "voice" must be used respectfully; when it is not, rather than take the voice away, help students understand what proper use of voice is and how we all benefit when it is used appropriately): 
* solicit student opinions; let them know you are listening carefully to their opinions.
* help the class develop respect for others in the group, even others whose opinions they might disagree with.
* work toward a class environment that allows for individuality in opinions, as well as individuality in other ways.
* allow students to disagree (and to agree!): with one another, with you, at times maybe even with themselves (but always to do so respectfully).

Offer "explanatory rationale":  
An explanatory rationale clarifies why an activity is relevant, or why a certain subject or unit might be important. It fosters autonomy because understanding the relevance of subject matter or certain behaviors helps students "buy in" to what is being studied; it thus becomes more "theirs." Students feel more control if they are engaging willingly, in something that has utility:
* make sure students understand what you want them to get out of an assignment.
* in teaching social skills, help students understand how they will be helpful with later social interactions.
* in giving praise or feedback, focus as much as possible on what worked well, and rather than an unspecified grade or comment about quality, help students understand what was good in a certain assignment or behavior. 

For more about autonomy and how educators can foster it, see CSEE's recent publications Breaking into the Heart of Character and Structure and Guts. 

Tags:  Autonomy  Character Education 

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