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autonomy in education

Why Autonomy in Education Should Be Schools’ Primary Goal

What are the kind of adults we want our children to grow up to be? This is a crucial question that influences most decisions parents make on behalf of their children, including decisions around education. Many parents would value accountability, responsibility and self-motivation in their adult child, but most past and current education models aren’t suited to fostering those traits. Schools that encourage autonomy in education, however, are.

Traditional education prioritizes a smoothly functioning society, not necessarily a self-sufficient and fulfilled person.

If we look back at the history of education, initially, education was aimed at communal socialization. A certain set of attitudes, behaviour and habits were cultivated, but there was no need — and therefore no attempt — to provide a rationale for doing so, other than that these values ensured the community survived “together” in tough conditions with few resources. Individual choices were relegated behind the greater good, which was usually decided by an authority figure.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century changed that aim of education – but it was still tailored to society’s benefit; schools shifted focus to producing human beings with predictable levels of skill and controllable levels of knowledge, much like the cogs of a machine. This model, more or less, is still the most common one in schools today, where students learn by a defined time table that determines when they study, what subject, even when they eat lunch or can take a break.

But while it might have met the needs of the past, it is terribly misaligned with what is needed today. Today’s circumstances are different – poverty is in decline and people have better access to resources; production is increasingly mechanised; increasingly stable governments mean that citizens need to participate less in the process of nation building. For this to happen, children should be able to think independently and critically, and give reasons for their choices.

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Autonomy in education fosters the skills children need to be an independent adult who challenges and contributes to a diverse, democratic society.

Contemporary education is shifting purpose once again, to producing individuals who demonstrate independence in thought and action, think rationally, and are capable of critical participation in the societies they live in. And the main method of doing this is by providing greater autonomy in education.

What is autonomy in education?

Student autonomy in the classroom means learners take the initiative and responsibility for their learning. Autonomy is often conflated with freedom by parents educated in more traditional, structured environments, but it actually means self-governance or self-direction, as opposed to being directed or driven by external factors like teachers or curricula. Autonomous learners are competent partners in the process of learning, helping to determine what to learn, how to learn it, and the rate of at which to learn. Educators respond to the unique needs of each learner by varying the content, methodology, and pace of instruction, enabling each child to understand the same concept as their peers, but in ways suited to their own ability and motivation.

This means the classroom experience changes. Teachers might use autonomous learning strategies like the Campfire (a time when a class comes together to share and gain from collective wisdom), the Watering Hole (when students learn from peers in a small group setting), and the Cave (a time for individual reflection and study) to create a supportive group learning environment that still fosters autonomy.

Schools like Aarohi, in Bangalore, or Summerhill, in the UK, embrace autonomy by giving children complete freedom to decide what and how they learn within the school setup. Students make choices based on their likes, dislikes, learn how to justify and debate their choices. While this model of complete autonomy works for some, many parents are not ready to give up complete control over what/how their child learns.

Another model which preserves some of the structure of traditional schooling is followed by the Big Picture Learning schools in India. Here students set personalised goals for themselves based on their passions and interests and are then given the autonomy to figure out how/when to reach these goals. They need to manage their own time and schedule while seeking out resources and people. Independent learning happens alongside within a set curriculum.

What does autonomy in education do for kids long-term?

The result, at schools that embrace autonomy in education, are students who develop a sense of responsibility and self-motivation. As Alfie Kohn, an American scholar who writes about education, parenting and human development, puts it, “If we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of autonomy in education for children: The skills it fosters extend to their ability to make their way in all spheres of life: academic, yes, but also economic, artistic, domestic, social, and political.

Schools can always add more structure and control, but it comes at the cost of power and choice for the child and the adult he or she becomes. Only through an education that encourages and furthers autonomy do both the individual and society benefit, allowing both to fully realize their individual and collective potential.

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