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Mentor Mag

Fostering Autonomy

Autonomy in teaching and learning, is the ability to take charge of one’s learning. When we have autonomy of learning in a classroom, i.e. students have the right to decide what to learn, how to learn, how  to assess understanding and remediation thereof and the teacher is an evolved educator having the wherewithal to take charge of such a class and having the management’s backing to do so, not being restricted by the quantification of syllabus, the learners become self-activated makers of meaning or in other words, active agents of their own learning process. They are not one of those, who embrace things merely as they happen; they are the ones who, by their own will and desire, cause things to happen.

What is the purpose of education?

The answer is simple- the main purpose of education is to build certain skills for life, be it the skill of questioning and enquiry or creativity, it may also be analytical skills or observation skills, whatever skill  it may be, it finally aims at an individual being independent in all walks of life. Now the question arises, that if this be the purpose of education then is this really happening in our schools and other institutions of education and if not, then why not?

Whether it is the government through policies or the regulatory bodies through the government policy implementation or the school Principals who have a tendency to control what is being taught in our classrooms, I think there is a tendency of those in power to not give authority to the learner for enquiry and self-assessment.

We will talk of autonomy at three levels which may perhaps be considered as the three most important pillars of the teaching- learning process:

  • the child
  • the teacher and
  • the curriculum

Given the diverse levels of aptitude and thoughts floating in the classrooms, children do not get enough freedom to discuss issues and ideas related to any topic that may have been taught, considering the rules of teaching and the time frame have been defined too stringently. This is where the teachers look for autonomy, to teach at their pace, as they are the best judges to ascertain whether the children are learning while also understanding and internalising what they have learnt, or does the teacher have to alter her pace or style of teaching and devote more time to the chapter since students have not mastered it  as  yet. The teachers also cannot experiment with different ways of teaching since, the curricula to be taught has to be completed within a fixed period of time, whereas for teaching well and to reach out to each child the teacher requires a lot of time in hand to experiment with new methods. Think of  a class where a teacher and a child both have the freedom to teach and learn what they want, in whichever way they want and have no restriction of time for completion and assessment and the teacher and children together take these important decisions. With an intrinsic motivation to learn, I am sure children would be able to grasp more and also feel more in charge of their own learning and teachers too would feel more responsible towards what they teach. The struggle children face while understanding the subject matter would perhaps be removed and while giving more space to the teacher, there would be more learning at a mutually decided pace. This is bound to bring freshness to  the learning-teaching process and help in developing a great bond between the child and the teacher. Does any emotional bonding happen in the present situation? Can this occur in a restrained environment? Is there any joy in learning? Well, we all know the answer.

It would be great for  a  child  to  be in a class wherein the teacher encourages and accepts a student’s autonomy and initiatives. The teacher not only gives a task but explains what is expected from each child and then allows student responses to influence the shape and content of the class thereafter. The teacher also establishes prior knowledge before developing a concept and encourages student inquiry and peer learning through open ended questions. Moreover, the teacher challenges students to evaluate their initial views and beliefs and allows some wait-time after posing questions. In a nutshell, the teacher’s role in this classroom, thus evolves, from being an “imparter of knowledge” to that of a coach or a consultant. Well, all these occurrences in a classroom are signals of learning by understanding in an autonomous classroom. Man by nature, requires freedom and it is only through this autonomy that happiness and satisfaction arises.

In assessment too, when teachers have the freedom to choose the ways and forms of assessment along with interactions with the children, the joy of being assessed along with the results of the assessment would be much higher and would make a stronger connect with the children. Another important aspect of assessment, for which time is required is remediation. Although much is talked about, with regards to remedial teaching, it seems like a distant dream, primarily because of its poor execution and implementation. Remediation should be internalised and this is likely if one encourages, self-assessment.

Self-assessment is an important aspect of assessment, since it extends more control to the learner himself, thereby making children feel more responsible for their learning. When a learner assesses himself/herself, s/ he feels responsible for the learning that occurs. Self-assessment encourages learners to check their own progress and enables them to become more responsible for the direction and the course that their learning takes. A critical aspect of self-assessment, is that students become autonomous in their learning.

Another important aspect of autonomy in learning for the child and the teacher is the curriculum, which must be so designed, that it is more child-centric. The human tendency, especially in a large class, is to exercise control over the students rather than giving autonomy since it may sometimes be challenging, to cater to diverse thoughts. Hence, teacher training and designing curriculum  become  important  aspects  to address the problem. Designing the curriculum to give enough room for children to learn for themselves again, has the challenge of how much to hand-hold the student and when to leave the child for him to learn for himself and how to reach an answer or discover knowledge as these are important skills which are learnt over time by children through trained teachers.

When there is too much control and discipline from the Principal, then the whole school begins to think in the same direction, thereby discouraging divergent- thinking and resulting in teachers feeling stifled. Here, the role of the school Principal comes into play and s/he can really be a guiding light. Although the Principal must serve as a leader, s/he must encourage independence of thought and  freedom  of action amongst teachers, making the environment more diverse and accepting and giving them autonomy. These teachers, who have been given the freedom to take their own decisions grow up to become leaders of tomorrow for the institution, with a keen sense of giving autonomy in the workplace for others.

When there is autonomy in our classrooms, we tend to nurture happy and satisfied children who have learnt to learn and grown up to be contented mentally healthy children, with sound knowledge and leadership qualities, as they have taken charge and responsibility for their own learning.

Let us not view students as “blank slates” onto which information is etched by the teacher. Let us look at them, as thinkers with emerging theories about the world. Once the students become more reflective in their own learning, they set realistic targets for themselves and can identify different learning strategies and became more responsible for their learning. This will also lead to realistic achievement targets wherein students’ own predictions of results, will be closer to the actual performance resulting in less of disillusionment and depression, once the results are out.

To see a difference  in  our  children  and to create more responsible citizens for tomorrow, the first step has to be taken in our classrooms. The policy makers, curriculum designers and the teachers have to realise that controlling thoughts and curricula leads to suffocation, creating dissatisfied leaders for tomorrow, adding no value to the nation at all and it is finally the independence that we give to our children that helps them blossom!

About the Author /

With a rich experience of over 25 years in the education sector, Mrs. Amrita Burman, Deputy Director, Sunbeam Group of Educational Institutions, Varanasi, has served as a teacher, a Principal and a Director. She has been part of several international seminars and workshops including the 19th Annual International Creativity Conference at Klien Kariba South, Africa and has also been a consultant editor for Pearson Learning Solutions and for Sunbeam Eduserve Private Limited. She heads the group which has six Sunbeam Schools in Varanasi, a women’s college with a philanthropic endeavour and has also been instrumental in developing Sunbeam’s successful curriculum. In this informative piece to MENTOR, Mrs. Amrita Burman shares her perspective on how autonomy in schools for the teacher and the learner can manifest itself into a self-motivated learning environment.

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