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The Debrief

Leveling Up: The learning science of autonomy and student agency

Dan Cogan-Drew
Nov 24, 2020

“People learn best when they perceive that they have meaningful and appropriate agency over their learning.” — Transcend Education 

“Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder. Do not mention the murder.” — A creative writing exercise from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

As the spring closures wore on, we began to hear about decreasing levels of student engagement and the challenges that teachers faced in maintaining a connection with their students. This fall, we’ve heard from some parents, teachers, administrators, and students that they are more optimistic about how learning has unfolded. But as we look ahead to the winter, as the days grow shorter and we all spend more and more time inside in front of screens, student motivation is going to lag as students — and teachers — are faced with unsatisfactory answers to the question: why school? Once that begins to happen, it may be harder work to re-engage students than to proactively make some moves now. 

What can we do? One thing that we can do is to audit our curricula for the factors and principles that learning science tells us are necessary to sustain motivation, engagement, and achievement. One of the most important contributors to learner motivation is autonomy: the ability to self-direct one’s own learning.

A first step to doing this kind of autonomy audit is to remind yourself that as an educator, a curriculum developer, a tutor, an administrator, you are fundamentally a designer of educational experiences. As a designer, you have many — but not infinite — choices at your disposal. That you have constraints is a good thing when the constraints are so-called intelligent constraints that help focus the creative process on the right problems by naming the things that must be ignored. When John Gardner instructs writers to develop creative tension between what is said and what is unsaid, he’s providing a constraint by withholding permission for the writer to write everything that they know to be true. The writer knows that the man has just committed a murder; the reader does not (yet). How can the writer make this felt without saying it outright? That is an invitation to creativity: an intelligent constraint. It’s worth taking time to understand this creative tension, because as learning designers educators are subject to the same autonomy-with-constraint to which students are subject, as well.

Wiggins and McTighe have persuasively argued that learning standards are not incompatible with in-depth and engaging instruction. The standards, in this view, are not the blueprints telling you how you should build your house, but the building codes — creative constraints — to which the construction of your house must adhere in the interest of proper engineering, safety and design. How am I as an educator to satisfy the learning standards while at the same time exercising creativity in how they are met? The standards are an intelligent constraint that help to focus our thinking on the most important work to be done — how we’ll measure learning (formative and summative assessments) and the instructional plan for how we’ll ensure that every student gains the necessary knowledge and skills. 

  1. Outcomes: What all my students must know and be able to do

  2. Measures: How I will know that all my students know and can do these things

  3. Practices: How I will get all my students to show that they know and can do these things

As a sports coach, you’re handed the rules of the game, which provide an intelligent constraint within which you must design your team strategy. At a high level, you’re also given the measure — team’s win-loss record for the season — that will be used to evaluate your performance. But from there, you have a lot of choice in how you frame these constraints. Even the scoreboard within a given game is not the be-all and end-all of your team’s (or your) performance. Is it possible to feel good about how you played even if you lost? Of course. Is it worthwhile tracking other metrics during a game besides goals scored? Of course. Deciding what to track, what to focus the team’s energy on during a game — and especially, during practice — is one of the coach’s primary responsibilities.

That framing makes all the difference. Imagine a coach that spoke only in the first person, who did most of the talking during practice. Who — outrageously — did most of the playing during practice (let alone, during a game). They would look quite out of place. How much we talk and how we talk when we speak about learning matters a great deal to our students’ sense of motivation. As Katie Novak and Mike Anderson have written, “[f]raming assignments in student-centric rather than teacher-centric ways can encourage engagement and persistence in learning.” This engagement and persistence comes from the motivation that the student brings to assignments that they value and from the autonomy that they have to self-direct their learning.

As this piece in the NYT put it: 

Intrinsic motivation is extremely useful, giving even serious work a sense of effortlessness. But it’s not a piece of cake to conjure up, and conditions matter. It is most likely to flourish in situations where students feel autonomous, supported and competent, but often fails to take hold when they feel controlled, pressured or unsure.

We all seek engagement from our learners, but even before we seek engagement, we must establish their motivation — their “why.” As the old joke goes, you only need one psychiatrist to change a lightbulb, but the lightbulb has to want to change.

* * * 

You may find these additional resources and examples useful as you look to transition your instruction from more teacher-centered to more learner-centered, or look to hone your learner-centered approach: 

  • A rubric on “Bringing Students Back to the Center” from the TGR Foundation and Discovery Education.

  • Educator Caitlin Tucker’s blog on “How to create a choose your own adventure learning experience”

  • How to Create a Self-Paced Classroom from Karrem Farah of The Modern Classroom Project

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