Choosing an educational path for your children is HARD!
Today’s educational landscape is nothing like the dark ages of yesteryear when you went to school in your neighborhood or opted for the social stain of being that unsocialized homeschool family.
Depending on where you live, you have choices! Hurray! But no matter where or how you educate your kiddos, one factor will follow you.
[Insert suspenseful music here]
OK, suspense built.
It’s the level of autonomy that is given to students.
Student autonomy is the degree to which students are empowered to choose what they will learn, how they will learn, and if/how they will demonstrate or use their learning.
If you have ever found yourself in a heated park-mom discussion about the merits (or demerits) of certain educational systems or approaches, there’s a good chance you had differing opinions about student autonomy, even if you didn’t know that's what you were arguing about. Instead of talking about “student autonomy,” you might have used words like “structure,” “classroom management,” “accountability,” OR “self-direction,” “creativity,” and “curiosity.”
Debates along these lines are common because education involves two types of people. Adults and children.
Since there is a natural power differential between adults and children, it doesn’t matter if you are choosing a public school, private school, or homeschooling; student autonomy is going to show up as an important factor.
Any educational program, pedagogy, or paradigm can be plotted along the spectrum of student autonomy. On the left, we have entirely adult-directed education. On the right, we have entirely student-directed learning. And, in the middle, a blended partnership.
Well, the effects of various levels of student autonomy are pretty predictable, meaning you can use this factor to evaluate educational opportunities and help you make the right choice for YOUR children. Or if you are a teacher or guide, how you run your classroom or microschool.
The most important aspect of choosing an educational setting for your student is knowing YOUR goals. What do you want for YOUR family?
Let's go over some common landing spots on the spectrum and their most common outcomes so you can see which approaches might work best for your family. You might want some of the outcomes associated with a different place on the spectrum than you currently have. That’s great.
You have options!
Imagine we’re on a tour bus with 6 Points of Interest. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the student autonomy tour.
We’ll start on the left of the spectrum with more adult-directed options and work our way to the right towards the more student-directed options. Keep in mind there are an infinite number of stops along this spectrum. We are just going to highlight a few key areas.
What do we see?
At our first stop, we see kids in uniforms, desks in rows, and a cursive poster on the wall.
Learners sit quietly and listen to the teacher’s words dictated by the curriculum and the schedule. Learning materials align with legislated state standards, and students are systematically exposed to them based on birthdays.
The class is organized, and the teacher is highly qualified and credentialed. She occasionally stops to ask a question to check for attention. Hands raise, and correct answers are given rapidly. She rings her desk bell, and the kids pull out flashcards and begin to quiz each other. They have strong recall and know their stuff! Behavior is controlled through a tightly policed array of rewards, punishments, and comparisons.
The bell rings, and everyone cheers.
You could create this environment in a large school, a microschool, or in a homeschool setting. The physical environment isn’t the differentiator, it’s more about who is deciding what is important, appropriate, and what success looks like.
What do we see?
Here we see the same as POI #1, BUT kids are given a choice over what they wear.
They still sit at desks, but they are arranged in small groups. As they listen to their well-trained, credentialed teacher, you notice charts on the walls with student names and stickers. It’s obvious which students excel and which are struggling to keep up.
The curriculum is still dictated by the adult and disseminated along a preset schedule based on age. But, here, the teacher presents the material in a variety of ways. Fewer flashcards, more station rotations, and kids choosing aspects of what they learn. But about two-thirds of the kids are zoned out because they are bored or lost. The teacher wishes there was a way for her to reach them all.
The bell rings, and kids scramble excitedly to recess.
Again, you could find many aspects of this structure and learning approach in a classroom, microschool, or homeschool.
What do we see?
Here we have a pretty engaged group of learners.
There is still a curriculum to stick to, but it’s more flexible and leaves plenty of room for students to go deeper into something they are interested in if desired. Here, at least some aspects of the day are determined by each child’s level of mastery instead of the curriculum schedule.
The adult in the room listens a bit more and talks a bit less. Projects, small group learning, and student-led discussions are common but still aligned to predetermined topics that must be covered. Things like grades moderate behavior but there is a lean towards positive rewards instead of punishments and adults sometimes engage students in thinking about the “why” behind their learning.
The bell rings, and students linger, finishing up what they were working on.
What do we see?
Here we see a mixed-age group of students actively engaged in learning.
They work with a supportive mentor (who may or may not be a credentialed teacher) to set personal goals based on their academic data. They collaboratively explore topics of interest and apply their skills and knowledge through hands-on experiences, projects, and solving real-world problems they feel passionate about.
Community agreements govern behavior, and kids gain experience with authentic conflict resolution as issues are dealt with through collaborative problem-solving.The mentor frequently asks questions about each student’s purpose for learning, fostering intrinsic motivation.
The bell rings, and everyone sighs disappointedly.
What do we see?
Here we see learners hanging out in a semi-structured environment where learning is the agreed-upon intent, but there is no discernible “right” thing to learn or a “right” way.
Student inquiry drives all activity. There are no grades or punishments or rewards tied to learning but common courtesy and civility are expected. There are no schedules or official curricula, although learners are introduced to tools that may run them through structured lessons if desired.
Adults intentionally pique student interest in a topic and guide learners through how they might explore their interests in engaging ways but participation is optional.
The bell rings, and everyone looks at each other confused about where the sound is coming from.
What do we see?
Here we see young people and the adults caring for them going about their daily lives without formal lessons, curriculum, or required educational experiences.
The adults may demonstrate academic-like behaviors such as reading, researching, or developing a talent, but no demand is made for the child to learn anything specific. Children are invited to participate in various experiences like going to a museum, the library, or a play but are not required to do so. Children choose what interests them, and adults help facilitate the child's experiences, like learning to read or understanding chemistry.
The bell rings, and everyone evacuates, assuming there is a fire.
Now I will say something controversial you will surely disagree with: there’s no “wrong” place on this spectrum. No matter where an educational opportunity falls, there will be kids who excel and kids who struggle, extreme success stories, and extreme failures.
I want to call out that “failures” aren’t necessarily due to the approach or setting but rather a mismatch between what the learner needed and what they were getting. It doesn’t mean that experience or setting is inherently bad.
However, there are overall trends we can still learn from. Warning: once you feel like you have found the right place on the spectrum for your family, all other options may seem like child abuse to you.
It’s normal to want to defend the choices you are making for your family, but if these thoughts are create a judgmental or negative vibe in your heart, I invite you to get curious about these feelings and try to reach a place where you can see the value in each approach. It comes down to what you value as a family, the personality and needs of your children, and your long-term goals for their development.
Again, the most important thing when choosing an educational setting for your child is the results YOUR FAMILY wants. All choices come with trade-offs, and there are many factors to consider!
Every child is different, and what they need may vary from year to year.
If your family enjoys the benefits of a more adult-led learning environment, that’s awesome! We recommend carefully monitoring their mental health and relationship with learning over time. No amount of academic success is worth sacrificing the happiness and well-being of your child. Remember, good grades do not necessarily lead to lifelong learning.
If your family enjoys the benefits of a more child-led learning environment, that’s great! We recommend considering how you might support them in making sure they have the skills they will need to harness their creativity and motivation toward a meaningful end. Creativity is wonderful but can only be truly impactful when coupled with tangible skills.
If you are looking for something just right of center (no political undertones implied) — where kids and adults work together to build highly autonomous but still structured, personalized learning experiences — check out Prenda.