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Philosophical Meanderings

One Word-Autonomy

This week we are asking “what must we do to transform schools into places of authentic, democratic learning?” From this we will compile are “Must Do’s List.”

I brought this question to my mentor and his answer has stuck with me, “autonomy.”  I think Aaron will like this idea as he fends off his trend-crazy collaborative peers with his prized copy of the U.S. Constitution.

This idea of autonomy has many applications. First of all, it necessitates another must-do. We must have competent teachers in the classroom. Let’s talk about what a competent teacher is next week perhaps? I will just say to have this condition met we need to move a little bit further along in our cultural reform, because having teachers who want to use the new Texas U.S. History books, scares me. And if autonomy is granted than these teachers can do just as they like, just as I can do what I like. So in a way I am shooting my suggestion in the foot, but let’s forget that for a moment.

Okay, let’s imagine the classroom is in responsible hands, all that we must-do is trust the teacher! How about that! Alright my work here is done, have a good night everyone, please send checks to…

Okay, seriously, throw this political accountability rhetoric in the compost bin along with the shredded scan-tron sheets you intended to use as your measure. If there is a mature, sane person in charge of guiding and assessing student’s learning and growth then let them be!

Paula has detailed (I don’t remember exactly where to provide the link-sorry), she can very accurately judge how her students will do on standardized tests because she knows her students so well. When this level of relationship is had between teacher and student, there is no need for standardized tests. What there is the need for is trusting teachers and providing them atmospheres where they can successfully do their job! This is called autonomy.

Moreover, teachers are much more than content deliverers and assessment monkeys, they are truly artists, when given the space to be. With autonomy our artisan teachers will craft the structures needed to provide their students authentic and democratic learning experiences. They won’t all look the same, they are not supposed to.

I promise that teachers will be passionate about their jobs, less worried about the 6 1/2 hours a day they are signed up to work, and enjoy those hours a heck of a lot more. Equally if not more importantly students will be more engaged and gaining the trans-disciplinary skills needed to direct their own learning for a lifetime. The results will be less classroom management issues, lower dropout rates, less addiction and mental health issues (particularly less depression and anxiety), and a generation of people armed to renew our culture.

By extending autonomy to our students, allowing them opportunities to discover and explore their passions, we will be upholding Howard Thurman’s creed:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


19 thoughts on “One Word-Autonomy

  1. Hey Adam! I’m the first on and want to respond with a nudge. One of the reasons that NCLB came to be, built up so much momentum and steam, is that the perception was that there was TOO MUCH AUTONOMY out there in the teaching force, and that there were no professional norms in the sector that actually enforced good or even adequate practice among teachers. As my husband says, teaching one of the only employment sectors that has historically equated privacy of practice with “professionalism” (I get to do what I want in my own classroom. Close the door and leave me alone…) What if doctors wanted to practice heart bypass surgery any old way they felt like it, or what just seemed right to them? What are the problems with the autonomy god you raise?

    And hey, payback is a bitch. I expect the same sandpapery treatment over at my post as soon as you get to it.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 20, 2010, 1:16 pm
    • Awesome, Kirsten, thanks for the nudge! Nothing sandpapery about it, this is exactly what this blog is about, pushing one another. And although we have become a pretty cozy group, if we don’t challenge one another’s ideas than this community will have lost its rigor. So honestly, thank you.

      So here’s my nudge back, I understand how autonomy has led to the current push in standards and accountability. This is in part why I said for autonomy to be feasible it requires competent teachers. And I like Chad’s proposal about how to begin cultivating such teachers within our ranks (see his comment below).

      Are you proposing that teachers like Paula, Aaron, and Chad, should have to relinquish some (more) control of their classrooms to outside forces such as standardized testing or common core standards in order to keep them accountable? And how exactly does autonomy in heart surgery equal bad practice? If a good doctor is performing bypass surgery and encounters something out of the norm, isn’t part of why he is a good doctor is because he has the creativity to respond to the unexpected? Or should he skip that part of the surgery because it is outside of the scope of “standard” practice?

      A difference between the culture I am discussing and that which has been practiced in schools is that teachers are orientated to different goals. The culture that led to the criticism of teachers having too much autonomy is one that believed its purpose was to sit students in seats and force feed content to them so they can regurgitate it back to get high marks. That culture should die, deserves to die.

      We are talking about transforming classrooms into places where authentic, democratic learning takes place. I am saying that if this is what a teacher, a school, an education system is committed to doing, then let teachers have the autonomy to make it happen. They are accountable in a new way in this new culture. Learning becomes palpable, you can taste it in the classroom and hallways, you don’t have to look at test reports to figure it out.

      Like you describe principals become Chief Learning Officers, and are a primary resource for teachers to get information that is relevant to their practice. Teachers because they are loving, learning, and responsive creatures seek out one another and new research because it is helpful to them. It is helpful to them because they see it is helpful to their students.

      Using my heart surgeon example above, if he did not feel adequate for the task of addressing the unexpected situation, if he were responsible, he would get someone in the room who did have the knowledge and the ability to address it. If he felt able and addressed it himself, he would debrief with mentors or other surgeons afterwards because he cared whether he did a good job and if he could do it better next time.

      Just because you are granted autonomy doesn’t mean you should become a shut-in. Responsible people, in any profession, demonstrate particular character traits (kindness, receptivity, responsiveness, caring, discernment and others) regardless of them being mandated to do so. It is this constellation of traits that we need to cultivate in ourselves and our students, because they are naturally rewarding human traits, not because they satisfy a quota or expectation. Accountability, thus becomes decentralized, it is no longer located in the main office, the state house, or the Dept. of Ed. but rather it is intrinsic in our every relationship. Just like the doctor is accountable to the patient because at a very human level he just wants to help save his patient’s life, teachers are accountable to each student, because at a very human level we just want to help them grow. For more on this idea please watch Barry Schwartz’s TED talk.

      We have thoroughly addressed that most of the measures being instated today do not ensure growth, so get them the hell out of the way, and let us return to being human beings helping one another to grow and achieve our potential and dreams.

      And like I said this is necessarily founded on cultural reform, because we have to understand what it means to grow as human beings and agree that this is of value before authentic and democratic learning is even supported. We are agreeing to this idea put forth by David Orr:

      “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”

      In good play, there’s your payback Kirsten, my rant.

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 20, 2010, 2:49 pm
      • I live in a Right-to-Work state, VA, but grew up in a house with a union teacher back in CT. The kind of accountability Adam describes is the kind I want to exchange for autonomy in creating my own network of teaching and learning practice. I’ve thought a lot and written some about negotiating waivers or individualized expectations with administrators aligned to learning, sharing, and student and parent feedback rather than to test results.

        The unions will have to adapt or get out of the way, or, I like to imagine, authentic educators will find the states, localities, and communities that value them, just as Kippnotized communities value KIPP-like teachers. I don’t mind splitting some difference with unions in savings on group benefits, but what I promise to deliver, the people to whom I am beholden, and the freedoms I need to do what I have learned is best are different than those of other teachers on their own journeys or in their own cages. I don’t want to be evaluated in ways that are inauthentic to what I do. If I’m hired for what I do, it should be on terms that reflect what I do.

        We need to negotiate contracts for sanity and point out what’s insane here, as in Aaron’s real-world example.

        Great interchange, Adam and Kirsten –

        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 20, 2010, 5:58 pm
      • Adam, I am running short on time but want to respond. Good rant. Great points about when a doctor is actually exercising autonomy (good judgment) in relation to something unexpected. I think the climate in which NCLB arose, however, was incredibly variability in professional practice, no agreement on what good practice might look like, and no norms that even said you had to be in these conversations. The egg crate classrooms in the isolated school. Not a prescription for creating competent practitioners. (For more on problems with the parallels between teaching and medicine, read Debbie Meier’s blog today

        Not to be an asshole, but many teachers are NOT like you and Paula and Aaron and Chad. What should be do about that? That IS a real problem.

        I read a great book last night (on breaks at my daughter’s sports banquet) Tested: One American School Struggles To Make The Grade (Linda Perlstein 2008).

        It contains some very real time descriptions of what actually happens in elementary school classrooms when the regime of high test scores becomes GOD, how it shapes teacher practice, how it routinizes practice and reprioritizes the “goals” of the institution. It is also an example of how many teachers are NOT like you and Paula and Aaron and Chad. In a very nuanced way I think it gets at some of the difficulties we are having about naming expertise and defining the work of teaching in terms of a profession that claims its values and enforces norms of high level practice.

        Let’s keep this in play, okay? Would you be willing to talk to me about teachers who do not have your professional ethics, training, and inclinations?

        Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 21, 2010, 12:40 pm
  2. I think we can re-norm teaching to be authentic and transformative for adults and kids in school buildings. We can all acknowledge the useful constraints that research, practice, and the state of school and the world give us about kids, learning, motivation, and sustaining lives well-lived.

    Stipends, though scarce, are one way to norm teacher leaders, even though there are many more teacher leaders than can ever be rewarded this way. Merit-pay, whether for tests scores or value added metrics, represents another way to provide teachers with incentives for acting the way that fiscal gatekeepers want them to act. I think our questions, therefore, remain rooted in society and change. How do we get the gatekeepers to value the lives inside and outside the gate more than they value exploiting the things inside the gate? How do we ally ourselves with those who already do? How do we build a bigger table?

    Another way to re-norm teaching would be for ed schools to shift from offering classes into facilitating apprenticeships and master teacher credentials.

    Imagine if ed-schools and other credentialing organizations like TFA competed with one another to sign master teachers and to give them 2-3 apprentices at a time for up to 3 years. A master teacher could sign off on her apprentices according to agreed upon criteria with the ed school. The ed school could split revenue with the master teachers, free its faculty to be field researchers all the time, and infuse local schools with caring young adults and role models.

    Sane master teachers could re-norm apprentice teachers for sanity or dismiss them from the profession in competition with insane programs asking insane master teachers to norm insane apprentices. Too harsh?

    More later –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 20, 2010, 1:58 pm
  3. Adam,

    The quote at the bottom is perfect. I think autonomy should work on trust like you suggest, but also I disagree with Aaron. I think we need cooperation at the school level. School need to be able to make decisions about how they want to assess and teach their students…but the decision should be based on a relationship between the local community, the teachers, the students, and the leadership of the school. The teachers should have the autonomy to make choices that work best for their students.

    I am also completely scared about the Texas example. The problem with that situation is that it is from a state level and top down decision.

    What if the community voted for it? What if the teachers and students believed it was the right thing for their culture? At that point I think it would be wrong for me to tell them what is right for them to do. I think this type of tension is always there.

    I would recommend again Ron Berger’s An Ethic for Excellence. His book describes a school that is autonomous. Since they are located in a small rural town they the unique opportunity to run as a single school distract. The relationship between the community and the school is important to their success, and keep a natural level of authentic assess to occur.

    This is unique in the united states but in Australia and Finland things are different. Finland has a high level of success, and boast a system with no failing schools. A region of Australia also gives schools the autonomy to make local decision while still giving them the opportunity to have the support of the state.

    I think we should make all school charter school in American. I don’t mean to say that all schools should be run like businesses, but instead that all school should have the choice to choose their philosophy and assessment.

    okay more later….


    Posted by David Loitz | May 20, 2010, 2:07 pm
  4. chad,

    I love your idea… How can we do this? Maybe it something we should propose to Goddard. We have a new President and she is open minded to new ideas and a wants to have Goddard lead the field in the discussion of CHarter schools.

    What would a program liek this really like?


    Posted by David Loitz | May 20, 2010, 2:13 pm
    • Teacher-apprenticeship is a pretty popular notion – I can’t take credit for it. While I think the term is more often applied to mentoring, professional development, and student-teaching, I have heard it suggested as a form of alternateive licensure.

      Am I wrong? Help me out, Coöp – what should I be reading on this?

      I’ll try to work on a flow-chart or write-up of the relationships I envision here and share it later in the week. Thanks for the push, David.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 20, 2010, 5:44 pm
  5. (Thanks for the Howard Thurman quote. I hadn’t known about him.)

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | May 20, 2010, 4:07 pm
  6. When teaching is a “job” instead of a vocation and the motivation is a good salary or pension or “shorer days” or” “summer off” , then the outcome is fruitless, purposeless, meaningless and learning is besides the point.

    Posted by norma | May 20, 2010, 6:52 pm
  7. Hey Norma,

    I would love to know more about current role in education. Are you a teacher, student, thinker. How did you find this site? It so good to have you here.


    Posted by David Loitz | May 20, 2010, 9:22 pm
    • I am all of the above. I got involved in this site because I am the parent/education chair for my district council of pta and middle school and i work with a foundation “love,laugh n learn” whose mission is “to inspire children so they can shine” and in a joint venture had Kirsten as a keynote speaker, she told me about this site and I love reading the energy and wealth of ideas that I am passing on, and I am enjoying venting and putting in my two cents worth.
      Thank you for it all

      Posted by norma | May 24, 2010, 8:42 am
  8. Kirsten, I haven’t gotten to the links you provided yet, but wanted to say that I am more than happy to talk about the teachers who do not have my professional ethics, training and inclination. To some extent I did in this blog post back in March.

    And Norma, you are right, there has to be some passionate connection to teaching (and preferably for any line-of-work), call it a soul’s yearning, or food for the soul. When it becomes about holidays and summer breaks a teacher owes it to themselves and the hundreds or thousands of kids to take a sabbatical or leave the profession. The damage that can be done by teachers that don’t leave when its time can be great. They may restrict growth and change in the institution as a whole, they may occupy positions that would be most timely to turn over to more energized and creative talent, and they may injure students in a variety of ways (discussed in detail in Kirsten’s work, Wounded by School)

    More to come later,

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 22, 2010, 8:44 am
  9. Adam,
    I love your idea here about Autonomy. The process of Autonomy goes far deeper than simply “closing the door behind, leaving me alone, and allowing me to teach.” There is a directness with autonomy, that does deal specifically with the idea of trust but also, it continues with the idea of transparency and collaboration. That might sound as thought it is contradictory in nature, but really, how autonomy works in classrooms currently, is that teachers have their autonomy inside their structure.

    True Atonomy, I believe, as to what I also believe you are trying to state here, would bring about a real sense of trust in the teachers, in the ability to collaborate through the engaged learning that is happening in each classroom. No longer, will teachers hide behind their close door policy of autonomy with rules, but rather, feel liberated enough to share with parents, students, adminstrators and most importantly to me, FELLOW TEACHERS regarding the study happening in the classroom.

    Uniformally setting up learning in order to dispurse autonomy, creates a banking theory applicable result, no matter how progressive it is made out to be. Would an organic process of liberation through autonomy solve all of our probelms, no, but we are not designed to follow order and procedure, as if each human being was not unique, or each individual did not learn differently, or each teacher teach differently.

    A root basis of Autonomy, I believe, works well in other areas of the learning sector. For example, when you are on a museum trip for learning, do all those viewing each painting learn from the same guide, or ask the same questions, or FEEL the same way about the painting, of course not, so why are we asking teachers to do the same thing?

    I would argue as well, that while teaching is different that surgery, in medicine as well, many tactics are used, many applications are presented depending on each patient, let us make it less about unfiroming the system and more about trusting in the learning.

    Peace and Educational Solidarity,
    Casey K. Caronna

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | May 27, 2010, 12:22 am
  10. Adam,
    Thanks for bringing your post to my attention. I appreciate the fact that you’d be willing to take this risk, too, with the right teachers. Admittedly, this prescription will be tougher for some than others. For example, I’m an independent school guy. This means having the right teachers and granting autonomy will be easier for me than for an administrator in a large public school, for example. I think you can argue for autonomy from a number of angles, two of which include motivational theory and cutting red tape. For those detractors and skeptics who are throwing things at their monitors now, I must say I have only a handful of teachers to whom I would grant autonomy now and I have only a handful more to whom I would grant autonomy in a few years. That means the other teachers and I have work to do.

    Great discussion happening here. Thanks for letting me know about it. I’ll add a link to my blog.

    Posted by Nathan | June 3, 2010, 6:45 pm
    • Nathan,

      Thanks for making the journey over to Cooperative Catalyst and for bringing the conversation back to your blog. My mentor who inspired this post is currently in an independent school after 10 years in public schools. It can’t be denied that not being in a public school makes granting autonomy easier.

      It baffles me that despite private schools consistently performing better than public schools overall that public schools continue to implement road blocks to progress. I am not an education history major and can’t site my source right now, but I remember reading that when public schools implemented standardized testing that was when the wealthy really began moving their children into private schools at high rates. Over course there is more to private school students performing better overall as compared to public school students than just the curriculum, the socio-economic background of the students being one of the primary factors.

      I am having an conversation on Twitter with @PamMoran about why reform efforts in public schools do not focus on learning theory, but rather focus on top-down tweaks. The two reasons you mention for adopting autonomy are completely severed from the education reform discussion at a policy level.

      A question for you: You state that there are “only a handful of teachers to whom I would grant autonomy now.” Does that mean you currently don’t grant autonomy? Is this something you going to implement for the coming school year? Are you considering building a tiered system with a clear understanding of why certain teachers are being granted autonomy, and how you will be supporting others so that they are able to swim in the open sea?

      Thanks again for joining us here. I hope you will not only continue this conversation, but look around other posts and join in on conversations that excite you.

      With joy,

      Posted by Adam Burk | June 4, 2010, 12:14 am
  11. Adam,
    As I mentioned in my blog, for the past few years I have been focused on empowerment and have not been tuned in to the concept of autonomy for my teachers. After working with a few amazing teachers the past two years, and after reading and being convicted by Dan Pink’s Drive, I will seek ways in the future, beginning next school year, to grant autonomy. I’m going to take the summer to devote mental energy to the formulation of a plan.

    If you’re interested in some of the differences between public and independent schools historically, I recommend Lessons from Privilege.

    Looking forward to more conversation,

    Posted by Nathan | June 4, 2010, 7:56 am

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