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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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Posted By Amanda Leaman, Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

CSEE’s most recent publication, Breaking into the Heart of Character, made the point that educators—in all fields—increasingly see the importance and power of fostering autonomy, connectedness, and competence in students. Here’s one more example.

The September issue of Educational Leadership focused on resilience, including an article for math teachers. After touching on the subject in the article, Stanford School of Education professor Lisa Medoff, addressed autonomy, belongingness, and competence specifically in a subsequent blog post for ASCD, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development:

“By two weeks into the quarter,” she says, “my college students can anticipate when I’m about to recite one of my mantras about adolescents. They chant phrases along with me like... 'Don’t forget your ABCs!'” Yes, the ABCs: autonomy, belonging, and competence.

Autonomy: as simple as giving students choices (and listening to their voices). Without choice, whatever natural motivation students had for the subject is further undermined. The more choice we can reasonably offer, the more autonomy is fostered.

Belonging: it's is all about relations. True relatedness is not just getting along at school, it’s the sense that “People here care about me. People here support me.” Kids are more willing to grapple with difficult concepts for teachers if they think teachers care about them. Kids can concentrate better in classrooms where they feel like they “belong” to the group.

Competence: this is the sense that “I can learn, I have the ability to meet the challenges ahead of me.”

Medoff tells her blog post readers, “It’s very important that math teachers keep these three needs in mind.” But she speaks to all teachers:

“It’s incredibly important that educators incorporate adolescents’ needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence (the aforementioned ABCs) into many aspects of school, from classroom structure to curriculum and assignments.”

Why would Medoff say “It’s incredibly important”? It’s because these are not just good ideas, they are basic human needs. The ABCs affect motivation to learn, motivation to get along with others, motivation to perform to one’s best in virtually all areas. They are “incredibly important” and they are incredibly easy to incorporate into any class, in any subject, at any level. Teaching without attention to the ABCs is like driving with the brakes on.

See Medoff’s blogpost.

See the Educational Leadership article: “Getting Beyond ‘I Hate Math!’”


Four decades of research with kids ages 20 months through college all point to several beneficial effects when educators (and parents) work to foster autonomy, belonging, and competence:

  • greater psychological health
  • better coping with disappointments
  • better understanding of academic concepts
  • better academic performance
  • more enjoyment of courses
  • better attitudes toward school
  • better ability to regulate behaviors
  • more creativity
  • more altruistic behavior

That’s a lot to gain, especially when there is no cost other than a different kind of teacher attention.

See more about fostering the ABCs in CSEE’s Breaking Into the Heart of Character.

Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [Grade: Upper]  [Subject: Moral Development & Character Education]  [Type: Article]  [User Group: Parents]  [User Group: Teachers]  autonomy  belonging  competence 

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