Autonomy Supportive Teaching

Michelle Bostian (September, 2019)

Autonomy supportive teaching touts the importance of allowing your students the freedom to fail – and this often raises fear of chaos in experienced educators. However, effective use of autonomy is more than “giving the keys to the kingdom to the kids.” It’s also about providing boundaries and setting clear expectations.So how do autonomy supportive teachers incorporate appropriate freedom and feelings of choice to better motivate students? 

The more students (and fellow adults, for administrators’ consideration) feel that their voices are heard and they have choices, the more inclined they will be to support and follow the rules. But how much autonomy is appropriate? How do we stay in balance? Effective parents know that the helicopter parenting style can stifle success, yet falling into a willy nilly parenting style if we give too much freedom will certainly derail our children’s success.  The same is true in the classroom.

Researchers Deci and Ryan have published considerably on the benefits of supporting our core psychological needs. One core need is to experience feelings of autonomy. The research explains that providing for autonomy is not as simple as providing freedom. It is about having firm guardrails in place in collaboration with the choices we give and allowing our students to feel their voice has been heard. Setting the safety of appropriate boundaries is key to the success of the freedom we associate with autonomy. 

To understand how this works, let’s consider a common issue navigated by teachers and students:  technology. Whether it’s monitoring internet use or managing cell phones or confirming the accuracy of research, teachers hope to offer as much autonomy as appropriate for their students to grow into independent and responsible technology users, yet fear the potential pitfalls of technology freedoms. Here are the key questions to consider as you engage in autonomy supportive teaching:

Have you provided absolute clarity in your goal?  Is everyone on the same page with the same goal in mind? (Did you talk about what responsible technology use looks like and feels like, both for you as a teacher and for your students?
Have you established common agreements together? (Remember, this is where you set the guardrails while you listen to your students’ voices.)
What system is in place to gather feedback? (How will both of you check in to see if you are reaching the goal?)
What will be an indication it is time to evaluate? (How will you know it’s time to check in?)
What will be an indication of success? Failure? 
How often will you check in? How are you holding yourself accountable for both giving autonomy and providing accountability?

Remember, it’s a balancing act and each student (as well as each teacher) has different comfort levels around autonomy. Check in with colleagues and know you aren’t navigating this alone.

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