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Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices

Motivation and Autonomy

Degrees of freedom in our schools and lives

“A man stands in front of a tank in China.” Families stand in the streets for days in Egypt. And, on a different scale, children everywhere contemplate running away from home when denied a later bedtime / another cookie / a sought-after toy. In Drive Daniel Pink makes the case that the longing – and sometimes fight – for autonomy is part of what makes us human. He defines autonomy as the desire to have control over a task, our time, our technique and our environment (including deciding who is on our team).

“A man stands in front of a tank in China.” Families stand in the streets for days in Egypt. And, on a different scale, children everywhere contemplate running away from home when denied a later bedtime / another cookie / a sought-after toy. In Drive Daniel Pink makes the case that the longing – and sometimes fight – for autonomy is part of what makes us human. He defines autonomy as the desire to have control over a task, our time, our technique and our environment (including deciding who is on our team).

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No wonder teachers hate teaching to a test. No wonder forcing teachers to fill in strict unit or lesson plan templates saps their creative energy and invites complaints of limited time. No wonder we get all excited about the word during contract negotiations. It’s part of what makes us feel like worthwhile and productive human beings! Not having autonomy makes work seem like work rather than play. And when play becomes work, motivation plummets. When motivation plummets, it takes creativity, learning, deep thinking, and results with it. In his recent interview with CEA, John Ralston Saul reflects this idea in his discussion about a standardized testing society.

Currently, the structure of (most) schools assumes that the desire for autonomy is synonymous with the desire to shirk accountability. Pink, however, argues that we naturally want to be accountable – and it is the constraints on our autonomy that make us want to shirk responsibility or accountability.

Most schools deny autonomy over time; we answer to a bell every hour or so. We will stop mid-conversation and move to a different location because the bell tells us that it is time to be somewhere else doing something else. This system makes school orderly and our time definite – but does it interfere with learning? creativity? drive?

How does autonomy work in your school? Do you feel like you have the freedom to control your time? task? technique? environment? What structures are in place to allow autonomy? What structures prohibit it?

How do you allow your students to be autonomous? Has giving them that freedom been successful?