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Engaging Every Student

June 29, 2016

The Importance of Autonomy

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Pear Deck Team

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The final outcome of a course is usually a grade. Over time the grade has become the goal. But the real goal is learning new skills and context so we can face life’s various challenges with competence, grace, and creativity. When the goal is the grade, we teachers go through a lot of gymnastics to make sure the right grade is assigned to each student. So we make tests and rubrics and scales to make absolutely certain that we know what grade a student deserves. But where in all that mess can we see that students are more capable of facing life’s various challenges than when they entered our class?

Matthew Drewette-Card writes, “Rigor = Complexity + Autonomy.” In other words, to make sure a curriculum is rigorous, the challenges and problems it poses to students must have complexity and allow for autonomy. In this view, a high grade should indicate that a student can complete a skill with a high level of complexity and they can do it on their own.

The tricky thing about autonomy

So that sounds pretty straight-forward: “Make sure students can do the skill on their own.” Of course! That’s why we give summative assessments, right? But the tricky thing about autonomy is that solving a specific problem with set variables by oneself is not the same as having autonomy. Having autonomy means unpacking a complex situation, then identifying, and ultimately choosing between, many possible paths to solve it. Memorizing answers to particular questions is not the same as having the skill to solve a question in the future. In Matt’s view, summative assessments should just be the standard itself. Here it is, show me you can do it.

A humbling experience for our team

At Pear Deck, we consider autonomy to be one of our core values. We really enjoy collaboration but we can also act on our own and our management structure is such that individuals are empowered to make good decisions without having to run everything past a manager. That’s the theory anyway.But we recently realized that we weren’t giving our product team much autonomy at all and we didn’t even know it. We had a bunch of projects that needed to get done and we had given our team a lot of leeway to decide when and how to finish them. But it didn’t seem to be working. Things weren’t getting finished and there was a lot of confusion. We suddenly realized that we had given our team a lot of individual tasks to be done but not enough agency or information to know the whole picture. Basically we had given them a worksheet with a bunch of problems on it, told them to do it in whatever order they wanted within a reasonable timeframe, and called it Autonomy.


Then we made an important shift. Instead of telling our team all the things that needed to be done, we started by getting aligned on the goal of any particular project. Once we agreed on the goal, the team had the autonomy to figure out what needed to be done and how. What’s more, the product team considers it their responsibility to get the executive team onboard with what they are doing and they do that sooner rather than later. If they only show us the work when the project is almost complete, they hear a lot of suggested changes. What’s worse, they might find that we had different opinions about important tradeoffs. If that’s when feedback is happening, it’s already too late and it’s annoying to everyone. So they ask for feedback often and update us on their thinking. Since they are clear on the goal, the timeline, and on who has to sign-off on the project, they can make informed decisions on their own instead of waiting for next instructions at every step.

Taking this to the classroom

  1. To bring this altogether, let’s look at the similarities between guiding a team in building new features and guiding students in the classroom.
  2. In both cases, there’s a goal to any given project or unit of study: What should the final product be able to do? What skills or resources need to be used in the project? When does it need to be done? Who are the stakeholders?
  3. In both cases, there are questions and concerns around success: What should it look like in the end? How will we know when it’s done and when it’s good enough? What happens if it doesn’t go well?
  4. In both cases, there is a need for feedback: How do we give good feedback at the appropriate times so that it’s helpful?
  5. In both cases, we worry about rigor: Will this work be challenging enough to interest them but not so hard that it’s demoralizing?

When I was a teacher, my way of managing all this complexity was to add ever more detail to my process. I would lay out a project with ever-more precise instructions. I made ever-more complicated rubrics to cover every possible scenario so I could be consistent in my grading. But all this detail just made it so my students had to complete a project my way; it didn’t necessarily show that they could handle a particular challenge on their own.

Now as managers, our executive team went the other way. We didn’t want to have to dictate or monitor every step, so we went hands off. But by not providing structure or guidance, our team team couldn’t make informed decisions about priorities and tradeoffs. Since making the shift to giving our team more autonomy, they’ve been more excited, more motivated, and more innovative.

In the classroom, if we follow this same pattern — aligning our goals and expecting students to be responsible for getting us onboard with what they’ve done and why — we open the door to all kinds of positive possibilities:

Rigor — When students have to figure out their own way to achieving a goal as opposed to solving predefined problems, we give them the opportunity to face real challenges.

Opportunity to be Wrong and Correct Course — Because they are facing real challenges and the path hasn’t been chosen for them, they also have the freedom to be wrong, which means they have the opportunity to identify a bad path and correct course

Opportunity to Iterate — Since autonomy affords students the chance to try different things and ask for feedback along the way, students get the chance to iterate. They can try something, ask the teacher or peers for thoughts, and make adjustments.

Motivation — It has been my experience that autonomy is motivating. But again, it’s tricky. Unclear goals and feedback that comes too late can be very demotivating. Autonomy can be overwhelming for students who have never had it. This is what makes clear goals so important. Just telling students to pick a project will likely lead to confusion and potentially a lack of motivation.

Self-actualization and Joy — When students are allowed to find their own path toward a goal, they get to use their creativity and push themselves to the limits of what they can do. And, as we have experienced in our own lives, when we get to use our skills and resourcefulness to overcome a challenge, it brings satisfaction and joy.

When we find ways of giving our students true autonomy, we make way for authentic learning moments in which students can truly demonstrate what they can do — and they often surprise us.

Illustration by Kate Moore

This week’s post was written by Pear Deck Chief Educator, Michael Eynon-Lynch.

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Pear Deck Team

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Pear Deck

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