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Future of Learning

Increasing Student Autonomy Through Time and Place

By Tim Johnson & Tony Winch
Increasing Student Autonomy Through Time and Place

Photo credit: Yu Cao.

As teachers, we have complete control over what we teach young people. However, we have little control over whether they actually choose to learn. The students must show up to our classroom at the right time for a lesson, and we will then teach the course at the pace that works for us, as teachers. It is difficult to find the Goldilocks zone; for some students the lesson will be too fast, for others too slow, and for a few it will be just right.

Covid showed us that the students could work at home autonomously, at their own pace and when they wanted. They didn’t need to be physically with us or work at the same speed or at the same time, so when students came back to physical classes in August, we decided to investigate autonomous learning in the Grade 6 (English) and 12 (Business Management) classrooms. 

We began our action research by giving students autonomy over lesson pacing and their own task management. Students had a list of instructions, videos made by us, curated content, and a variety of interactive tasks related to the unit. Unlike in a normal lesson, where students only get to experience the lesson once, they were now able to pause and rewind any part of the lesson to increase their own understanding.

One Grade 12 student noted, “If something was unclear, I could re-watch the screencast,” and 91 percent of Grade 6 students found this way of learning useful or very useful. The feedback was positive, including “I felt responsible, because even though I could watch Youtube and play games, I did not.”

From a teacher’s point of view, we ultimately felt that this was both differentiated and more personalized learning. Since we weren’t delivering content “live,” we had more time in class to accommodate different approaches to learning. For example, we had additional class time available for discussions and debates with groups of students. Also, we were able to help individual students through check-ins, one-on-one tutoring, and personalized coaching.  Students proved they could benefit from working autonomously, and we questioned whether this had to happen in the classroom.

Covid showed us that learning wasn’t restricted to the classroom, therefore we added more autonomy by allowing students increased choice over where they worked during regular class time. During one unit in Grade 6 English, approximately half of the students chose to work somewhere else on the school grounds.

In Grade 12 Business Management, lessons were signposted as red for mandatory attendance and green for optional attendance. The results proved interesting. Students who were above average previously in “normal” lessons achieved the same or slightly better when working outside of the classroom, while low average or low ability students did the same or slightly worse.

This was not the case for all students, however, as some did better because of a smaller class size and more individualized attention. Additionally, a few students decided to attend classes after realizing that they didn’t have the skills to work independently outside the classroom. This showed an increase in metacognition.

The students’ feedback on having a choice over location included the following positives: increased focus, working with friends, comfort, reduced disturbances, and freedom. Once again, as teachers we were able to give more focused support to individual students in less busy classrooms.

By giving students autonomy over the self-management of the course content and location, they also had autonomy over pacing. For example, whilst most students worked through the playlist during lesson time on the schedule, others chose to work after school, others “binge-watched” a month’s worth of work and did it all in a few days. This meant that students could, and did, prioritize other subject work in class or chat with friends, but they hit the deadlines with the same or better success rate than if they had been in class.

Comments from the students indicated they were in favour of this new approach. “You can manage your own time and do the screencasts at your own pace and whenever you like” (Grade 12).

“It makes me feel that I can work in peace without stress of when I need to finish it or keeping up with everybody else” (Grade 6).

This method allowed students to prioritize work. As teachers, we were able to offer support in a manner that was timely for the individual student rather than having to involve the whole class.

Covid forced us all to change, and our teaching has been transformed for good. We are experimenting with our teaching and attempting to leverage student learning by what we are learning in this new education landscape. We gave and are giving more autonomy and more control to students. This did mean that some students took it easy, failed to prioritize work, and some thought they had the necessary self-management skills but didn’t, indicating they need to be scaffolded towards autonomy.

Overall, however, we believe we are making students more responsible for their learning, boosting achievement, and teaching the skills needed to learn. The reason it is working seems to be grounded in what psychologist Richard M. Ryan calls Self-Determination Theory.[1] As he states, “the best teaching is high-autonomy and high-structure.” If we, as teachers, give more autonomy within a structure, the students think they’re more competent, and competency is motivating.

While it may seem an oxymoron, maybe for our students to achieve more, we just need to step away.

Tim Johnson has worked as an IB Business Management teacher at Frankfurt International School for the last four years, and previously taught in China for 10 years.

Tony Winch has worked in schools in Romania, Sri Lanka, and Czechia, and he is currently an Instructional Coach and English teacher at the Frankfurt International School.

[1] Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. Self-determination Theory : Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. New York, New York ; London, [England]: Guilford, 2017.

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