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Education Opinion

A Road Map to Increasing Student Autonomy

By Guest Blogger — August 05, 2020 5 min read
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Alex Baron is resident assistant principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in the District of Columbia. After starting his career as a preschool teacher at KIPP DC, Alex earned his Ph.D. at Oxford. He then returned to the classroom in the Denver public schools before taking up his current post. Alex will be diving into why students hate school, how to enhance student autonomy and curiosity without sacrificing order, and how COVID-induced innovations could actually help us achieve the kind of schooling that allows students to study what excites them.


Too often, school is a place where students mostly learn the answers to questions that they never asked. Consequently, as discussed in my previous post, school feels boring and disempowering for kids.

In this post, we’ll explore ideas to promote student autonomy. Here’s Debbie Meier to offer guidance for our journey:

A good school for anyone is a little like kindergarten and a little like a good post-graduate program—the two ends of the educational spectrum, at which we understand that we cannot treat any two human beings identically, but must take into account their special interests and styles."

If you ask kids about their special interests and life ambitions, the initial answers may sound like “be a youtuber,” “go the NBA,” or “I dono.” But if you dig deeper, kids will tell you that they’re interested in architecture, aviation, geriatric nursing, and more. There’s a there there.

And, yes, kids’ interests may not last through next month, but the point is this: When we ignore the stuff that activates kids’ current curiosity, we squander their current motivation.

Furthermore, schools’ incapacity to help students explore their interests has cascading future implications, as described in this senior’s blog:

High school has actively hindered my ability to explore anything about which I am passionate. . . I have lived my entire high school career aching for a subject which I have not yet touched, planning my college experiences around a major which I have never explored academically. Students are being asked to trust-fall into the world blindfolded."

As the quote suggests, the idea that most K-12 schools have “college prep” programs is somewhat of a misnomer. After all, the distinctive thing about higher education is the balance between core requirements and self-directed specialization. Most K-12 schools don’t feature the student ownership or responsibility that is characteristic of college settings, but how might they do so without requiring a comprehensive educational transformation?

Let’s backward-map a K-12 model from upper grades down to lower grades that could better prepare students for college and adulthood. I’ll infuse elements from unconventional models (e.g., Montessori, project-based learning, etc.) into a traditional school structure, since the latter comprise the preponderance of schools; perhaps innovation within traditional models could propel more widespread change than seeking wholesale school remodeling.

Starting with upper grades, 11th and 12th graders could follow Google’s 20 percent model, where employees spend 20 percent of work time on personal projects (out of which spawned Gmail, Google News, and more). Similarly, students would have freedom to explore a personal interest for approximately 20 percent of their day, week, or year. This could be an internship, a volunteering program, an independent research program, or another manifestation of a student’s interest.

This model would allow students to accrue multiple experiences in multiple fields, which in turn would help them make informed decisions about a postgraduation path. Additionally, since “who you know” is so often as important as “what you know,” internships or research programs could not only build autonomy but also disrupt inequities by connecting students to diverse networks.

But, I hear you saying, we can’t just give all that freedom to upperclassmen and expect them to handle it well. So, how should underclassmen be prepared for their forthcoming freedom? Well, 9th and 10th graders could have a capstone period where they research fields, internships, or individualized experiences. They would learn to write emails, resumes, and cover letters alongside basic research skills. Additionally, students would interview field-specific experts and complete one-week experiences in a couple fields to test the waters.

Capstones would follow student interests. If a student likes basketball, her capstone could require her to analyze the WNBA’s history, stats, and socio-cultural dynamics through a strong written product. Students could then intern for a week with a basketball team to also explore options such as team management and operations.

For some, capstones and internships may seem insufficiently “rigorous.” In response, again, here’s Debbie Meier: “Why was putting together a student newspaper nonacademic, whereas lessons in handwriting or filling in multiple-choice worksheets were academic? It was as though sheer authenticity lowered the value of the work.”

Pushing back to middle school, we should have student-led clubs during the school day. Many students say their most valuable learning happens after school. However, many students can’t participate in after-school activities because of scheduling issues or, in high school, jobs. While sports couldn’t easily be moved into a school day, student-led clubs could.

Students would pitch club ideas each semester and recruit members; they would then manage the clubs’ logistics using Google Calendar to arrange their meetings, create a newsletter with updates, and arrange guest speakers. Many clubs could have a service element that enabled students to get outside school and engage with the community. The community could evaluate the clubs’ progress via exhibitions that display the clubs’ work.

Finally, in elementary school, kids need more field trips, guest speakers, and other “real-world” experiences that build knowledge and expand students’ perspectives. Ideally, schools would have a “learning lab” room with tactile learning materials (a la Montessori) that students could learn from while still cultivating individual preferences. This learning space would cultivate the independence necessary to succeed with student-led clubs, capstones, internships, and 20 percent structures later on.

All of these K-12 ideas could be spiraled over time (e.g., high schools could have student-led clubs, learning-lab spaces, field trips, etc.). A final piece of this could be a “longitudinal IEP” for each student that tracks her interests over time as well as preferred learning styles. The IEP would provide students a sense of ownership over their education and also valuable information for teachers and colleges.

The ideas above are possibilities, not prescriptions. Critics may say that schools lack capacity to monitor all students’ interests, let alone provide pathways for students to explore them. My final post will explore COVID-induced innovations that may help us on that front. See you there.

—Alex Baron

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.