Opinion
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Nine Do’s and Don’ts for Cultivating Student Autonomy

By Sandy Merz — March 19, 2014 5 min read

I’m on a quest to find how students learn best and what they need to know most—and every day I’m moving toward the conclusion that the sweet spot is student autonomy.

Through reading, professional development, and classroom practice, I’m learning how to implement “Build Your Own Unit” projects. These projects are special because students are (mostly) in control of their own learning—they plan and create units that they themselves execute. In turn, students are engaged, focused, and creative from conception to completion.

My ideas about how and what students should learn have been influenced by a few different sources. Authors Ken Robinson, Clay Shirky, and Daniel Goleman write about the increase in cognitive satisfaction and originality that comes when students produce—instead of merely consume—information. And in the Lesson2Life professional development program at the Arizona K12 Center, I’ve learned from business professionals that mastering workplace skills such as resource management, self-management, collaboration, perseverance, and communication is just as important as mastering academic content.

How Autonomous Student Learning Works

In my engineering class, students tell me what they’re going to learn, how they’re going to learn it, and how they’re going to prove they learned it. Students begin by choosing an engineering topic that interests them and then building a unit around that topic. They must include an end product—maybe a model bridge, a poster comparing cryptographic codes, or a slide show about mining (just a few real examples from my class). After they’ve settled on content and a final product, students create a unit plan and tentative schedule—and then make it happen.

In their unit plan, students have to explain how specific evidence in their final product will prove that they learned their unit’s content. The aim is to have students pursue a product that expresses their learning, not just make a product about a subject. For example, the bridge builders explained that they would prove they had learned a basic design concept by maximizing their model’s strength-to-weight ratio. Alternatively, the girl who made the cryptology poster explained that it would show that she could encode and decode plain messages several ways and evaluate the merits of each code.

The Dos and Don’ts of Student Autonomy

My students and I are getting close to the sweet spot of student learning. I myself am getting a better idea of what autonomy looks and sounds like in the classroom. The next time we do a “Build Your Own Unit” project, I’ll use this list of “Dos and Don’ts” that I created when we finished our first units. I learned these lessons the hard way—but you don’t have to.

Do:

  1. Create intention and structure. Students working autonomously still need guidance. My students completed a survey before the unit in which they reflected on the types of activities they most enjoyed, assessments they excelled at, which group sizes they liked best (or if they preferred working alone), engineering topics they were interested in, and how long they thought they could maintain interest in a subject. Then, using their survey answers, they filled in a paragraph: “In my ideal unit, I will learn about _____ by creating _____. I will work with _____ other students and turn in a _____ to be assessed. My unit will last _____ weeks.” (Most students wrote two weeks, so I decided to give them three weeks as a buffer).
  2. Allow several days for planning. It might seem excessive, but how long does it take a teacher to plan a unit? Planning templates help. I’d suggest using (or modifying) whatever template you currently have or finding another one online that suits you. (One note: I always kick myself for not having students use their planners to write down and track benchmarks and deadlines).
  3. Require students to create a rubric. It’s important to have objective metrics that both you and your students can use to judge their progress and learning. Keep it simple and use Bloom’s Taxonomy so that students pursue different levels of comprehension. Students aren’t likely to include workplace skills like self-management or perseverance in their rubrics, but that’s OK. Completing the project will depend on those skills, so it’s redundant to state them explicitly.
  4. Coach, collaborate, and consult from a neutral stance. Act as a sounding board for your students. Encourage them, but be direct about the challenges that they will face in the projects they want to take on. Mediate their thinking and offer options, but let them make their own decisions, good or bad.
  5. Be flexible with group sizes, and let kids self-select. Some students will show you they actually can work with friends. Others will have the opportunity to learn empirically why they shouldn’t.
  6. Recalibrate your expectations about how a class should flow. Bellwork, direct instruction, guided practice, and closure don’t fit this class model. Instead, on most days I invite the class in at the bell. They begin their work unprompted. I visit each group to talk about the technical content of their work and help them think through their next tasks. They’re free to move about for supplies or use computers for research or productivity. Students are quieter than you might expect, but not too serious, either. The end of class often sneaks up on us, and we finish in a flurry of cleaning up.

Don’t:

  1. Don’t be too flexible with timelines. Kids will feel a natural urgency as deadlines approach and better manage their time. But they’ll slow down if you decide to give them a couple of extra days to complete tasks.
  2. Don’t accept anything less than evidence of learning for credit. One group made a fair model of a parabolic antenna they had seen, but they couldn’t discuss communications systems any better than when they had started. On the other hand, other students who had made model domes could spontaneously discuss dome construction and structures like the Taj Mahal and astronomical observatories.
  3. Don’t rationalize bad projects to yourself or students. Students plan units that are within their personal range, and they define success on their own terms. The work is inherently differentiated. I provide time, resources, and coaching, but students are responsible for the outcome of their work. Final projects that don’t measure up give students (and me) an opportunity for authentic reflection and growth.

Truth be told, I compromised on a lot on these do’s and don’ts in my classroom. Nonetheless, students were committed and motivated—and mostly independent in guiding their own learning. Now I have concrete targets to aim for in our next “Build Your Own Unit” adventure.

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