Is Students’ Autonomy Possible at Contemporary School?



The article shows that the modern educational discourse is shifting from discussing the conditions for achieving academic results to analyzing the conditions for the implementation of learning and, more broadly, the life of children and adolescents at school. The question is raised about the importance of analyzing and taking into account the socio-pedagogical conditions for the formation of independence in schoolchildren. Independence is considered as the most important non-objective result of education, non-specific for a traditional school. The condition for the development of independence is the possibility of a trial, a trial action. The school as a social institution is considered within the framework of E. Hoffman’s theory of total institutions. It is argued that the disciplinary practices of the school make horizontal communication “teacher-student/group of children” impossible. The article reveals the insufficiency of reducing educational practices to school practices alone and outline, the processes of enriching the educational space through expanding the access to informal and non-formal education.

General Information

Keywords: autonomy, agency, trial actions, subjectivation, total institutions, new trends in education

Journal rubric: Educational Psychology

Article type: scientific article


Received: 17.05.2022


For citation: Polivanova K.N., Bochaver A.A. Is Students’ Autonomy Possible at Contemporary School?. Psikhologicheskaya nauka i obrazovanie = Psychological Science and Education, 2022. Vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 6–15. DOI: 10.17759/pse.2022270301.

Full text


Childhood is gaining more and more prominence in social studies. It has traditionally been the subject of research in developmental psychology, where the focus of scholars and practitioners is the change/development of psychological characteristics of the child in the process of growing up. Today the research field is expanding to include the study of childhood and the child as such, the ‘here and now’, their well-being and life satisfaction.

J. Qvortrup et al. express a seemingly paradoxical, but very heuristic idea, pointing out that children exist in our world not only and not so much to become adults, although, of course, we all expect and hope that they will become adults. However, this expectation has attracted so much attention and has taken on so much importance, that it has been more or less forgotten that children, too, have their own life as long as they are children [20].

М. Spieler criticised the ‘adult’ view of childhood as early as the mid-1970s [22]. The work of Erica Burman [18], in which she consistently deconstructs developmental psychology, revealing its internal assumptions: adherence to the norm, the desire to impose a ‘correct’ view of childhood, the assumption of the child as an object of change, emanating from the adult gaze.

Thus, in today’s scientific landscape we find, on the one hand, the continuation of research, both theoretical and empirical, aimed at the child’s developmental changes, including those which are occurring within the framework of the educational system. On the other hand, the study of today’s realities of childhood as understood not in relation to the future but their present condition. The second direction is presented mostly in research on the conditions of children’s well-being, including the framework of school education. And another important vector within this second direction is the growing trend of studying children’s autonomy.

Theoretical Foundations for Considering Child Autonomy

The influential international organization OECD has been pushing the child autonomy agenda for the past three years. The programme ‘Student Agency 2030’ [18] has been developed. Its main idea is formulated as follows: the concept of schoolchild agency is based on the belief that schoolchildren have the ability and desire to positively influence their lives and the world around them. Student agency is defined as the ability to set goals, reflect and act responsibly to bring about change.

Note that today Russian and Western scientific literature employs several terms that we can, though understanding their difference, use as synonyms: agency (the ability to act in relation to a structure and to change it); initiativity (crossing the boundary of semantic fields, according to L. I. Elkoninova); autonomy, independence, personal autonomy (according to D. A. Leontiev); subjectivity (according to V. A. Petrovsky).

All these terms, in our opinion, describe similar abilities of an individual and similar actions. All of them can be described as supersituative behaviour, according to V. A. Petrovsky, or as overcoming field behaviour, according to K. Lewin. The difference in many respects is largely due to the fact that initially these terms were born in different theoretical models, but by the type of observed behaviour they are, we think, quite similar.

Therefore, realising the importance of theoretical-analytic comparison and refinement of these terms in the future, within the framework of this article, we will conditionally allow ourselves not to differentiate them.

The explosive growth of interest in the topic of children’s independence is connected, we think, to recognition of the unpredictability of the modern world and its variability. Indeed, if the world is stable and unchanging, it is possible to convey to a child the algorithms for solving basic tasks. If everything changes and the rate of change only increases, the algorithms stop working, and the ability to overcome the existing context, to act supra-situationally comes to the fore.

If today it is becoming more and more important to study children’s autonomy, then two important questions arise: 1) What are the conditions for the development of autonomy? 2) To what extent is child autonomy possible within the educational system? To what extent does the school (and we are limited only to general education) provide a student with space for performing their actions, where are those gaps in the fabric of the school context in which independence is appropriate and expected?

The answer to the first question is found in the works of B. D. Elkonin [17]: a trial action is a condition for development. In itself, the problem of the trial, the trial action is quite well developed within the framework of developmental psychology. These theoretical and empirical studies continue the line of cultural-historical theory, in particular, developing ideas about the construct of the zone of proximal development. We can say today that the interaction of a child and an adult in a zone exceeding the actual capabilities of the child, the provision of a test opportunity and the support of this test are conditions for the development of the ability to act independently. If we turn to the theory of subjectivation, then this is an interpretation of the need for a test: a new ability arises in two stages: at first, a new action itself appears, but only under special conditions, and then there is an emancipation of the ability—a test of a new skill in real situations of its application [11]. But the test requires a ‘response’: a reaction to the action, i.e. the condition of the test is horizontal communication.

Thus, a condition for autonomy development is the space for free activities in which the new ability is tested through the reception of feedback, and thus emancipated from the conditions of its development or directed formation. Consequently, we must answer the second question: where and in relation to what kind of school content children’s trials are possible, in relation to what context these trials are performed, whether the feedback is possible, i.e. to what extent the model of the zone of proximal development is realised.

To answer this question, we will look at the structure of school as it is presented in classical sociological works. This is necessary, because it is clear today, especially after the pandemic, how narrow and redundant is the idea of school as merely a place for the transmission of knowledge. The school is a highly complex social institution that addresses a wide range of tasks for the individual, society and the state, and when the lockdown forced the school to be reduced to the organisation of classes, everyone—educators, families and students themselves—felt that under ordinary conditions school is far more than just lessons.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Marxist interpretation of the school and the ideological institution of the state were popular in Western socio-philosophical writings. M. Foucault in Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison speaks of the school as an institution for the implementation of a power structure hidden in social relations. This power is realised via special ‘practices of order’ or ‘disciplinary practices’ which are typical for school.

It is possible to describe in the most detail school as an institution through the prism of those structural elements of total institutions described by E. Goffman in his book Total Institutions [2]. Let us immediately make a reservation: in the context of this article, we ignore the processes of adult adaptation and degradation discussed in the social sciences. In Goffman’s descriptions, we are looking for situations where free action, trial, goal-setting and achievement of one’s goals are possible. Goffman does not refer to regular schools as total institutions, only to boarding schools, because what is important to them is the impossibility of leaving the institution. Therefore, we will first consider the school as a total institution, and then show the insufficiency of this assumption. Looking ahead, we will say that the possibility of leaving the school is important precisely as a way of overcoming the totality of the social structure.

School as a Total Institution

The school as an institution of mass compulsory education was formed in Europe and the USA in the middle of the 19th century. Russia was lagging; it was only after 1917 that this system emerged. Clearly, industrialisation was the driving force behind the spread of education, conveyor production and the outflow of the rural population to the cities. The mass character of education and its accessibility to all segments of the population dictated the need for it to be relatively cheap, regardless of the sources of its funding—public, state or private.

Massiveness and accessibility required formats in which one teacher could teach a group of children, preferably of relatively similar abilities. It is no coincidence, we think, that the same period of the late 19th and early 20th century saw the explosive growth of paedology which was developing a factual basis for mass education. It was paedology that gave age the absolute independent variable, which manifested itself in the organisation of classes based on age.

According to E. Goffman, the essential characteristics of a total institution are the relatively small number of ‘staff’, i.e., pedagogical workers, and a large number of ‘guests’—students. The staff carries and holds the norm. Due to its small number, it is forced to carry out its functions based on numerous rules—both verbally fixed and implicit, unarticulated ones. These rules mediate relations within the institution, making bidirectional communication impossible—from teachers to students and back again. If the ratio was 1:1, it would be possible to build personal relationships, the rules would be relaxed and the communication would be quite different.

According to E. Goffman, every institution provides its members with a special world, i.e. every institution is characterised by a tendency of closedness. ‘Their closedness or totality is symbolically expressed in the barriers for social interaction with the outside world and for going out, which often have a material form’ [2; 32]. This indication of closedness is easily recognised today in, for example, the turnstiles installed at the entrances to the school, guard posts and metal detectors. Even though the child can physically leave the school building, the structure itself remains closed and connections with the outside world are difficult.

The creation of total institutions is connected to the idea of incapacity, that there are categories of people who need care, even if they may not seek this care. This directly applies to schools since the task of education at all stages of its development has been defined by the need to impart to non-adult pupils the qualities of adults: to make them capable of performing the functions of adults, ensuring the reproduction of the modes of existence.

According to E. Hoffman’s description, ‘each phase of the daily activities of a member of the institute is carried out by them in the direct accompaniment of a large group of other people who are treated in the same way and who are required to do the same thing together. It is also indicated that all phases of their daily activities are strictly scheduled, one occupation is replaced by another at an agreed time and the entire sequence of cases is prescribed from above by a system of explicit formal rules and a corps of officials. Finally, prescribed classes are subject to a single rational plan that ensures the achievement of the official goals of the institute’ [2; 34]. This is exactly how life is arranged at school—rules, regulations, actions in the chorus—in full view of a large group of classmates.

In this rigid system of rules and regulations, a ‘guest’, a schoolchild, is forced to find their ways of coping with the lack of freedom. E. Hoffman describes two types of adaptation: primary and secondary. Primary adaptation is the complete and accurate implementation of the rules of the institute. Those who are capable of such a following at least at the beginning of their stay at school become ‘good students’ favoured by teachers. By the beginning of middle school, few of them remain. Secondary adaptation is the ability to find such gaps in a strict structure where violation of the rules is possible. This is a well-known desire of children, and especially teenagers, to hide from the eyes of their elders, to get out of their field of vision. In such ‘blind spots’, it is possible to have their own life of schoolchildren, their independence.

Thus, if we admit that a modern school has the features of a total institution, it turns out that the space of independence is limited to places alien to the school: these are non-school zones in the school, for example, on the school territory outside the zone of teachers’ sight, in school toilets, etc.

Horizontal communication and feedback, which are necessary for the test of autonomy, do not exist in school, and if they do, then it’s rather contrary to the school laws. 

School as an Element of the Educational Space

Even if we recognise the school as a total institution, in reality, it has never been fully like other institutions. For example, in fiction, we find many examples of children’s warm relations with teachers and with each other, although such examples speak more about the ‘imperfection’ of the school.[1] A huge role in softening the rigid structure and freeing up the places for free action, in addition to establishing personal informal relationships, has always been played by the various kinds of leisure and non-educational practices at school: holidays, joint trips and excursions, class hours, i.e. everything that traditionally belonged to the field of upbringing.

Unlike completely closed institutions, the school exists in society, and children are included in a wide repertoire of interactions. The first and main thing is the existence of the child in the family and the local community, which provides substantial enrichment of communications, care and acceptance. It can be assumed that initially social skills were acquired mainly outside of school, in communication with peers, with extended family and in household chores [7].

A strictly regulated institution justifies its purpose until the idea of what is due begins to change in it and outside its walls, and until these ideas penetrate the school. Then the ‘unpacking’ of the school structure begins, described, in particular, by P. S. Sorokin and I. D. Frumin, although they do not exactly refer to general education [15].

The ‘unpacking’ of the school takes place in two main directions.

The first one is to provide students with a choice within the school: an individual curriculum, elective and additional disciplines, etc. We will also include the project activities of schoolchildren in the same row. The real implementation of these opportunities within the school requires additional research: to what extent, for example, the provided choice is limited or free and to what extent does the ability to independently set goals and achieve them develop within the framework of the project activities. But the emergence of ‘points’ for making independent decisions is expanding. New professional positions are emerging at school, for example, the position of a tutor or a teacher who implements horizontal communication with a child [4].

The second one is the appearance of a huge number of educational offers outside of school. In large cities, up to 80% of children are engaged in various activities related to the field of additional education. But the supply of educational services on the market is also gaining strength, both directly related to education, for example, the Skyeng service, and having educational functions—Arzamas, Khan Academy, etc. These services usually offer services that do not qualify for general education. They help to find ways to solve specific problems related to education: eliminate specific knowledge gaps in preparation for exams, study the subject more deeply or just learn more about the topic of interest.

I. Illich in his classic work Liberation from Schools wrote that over time, the school will lose its exceptional position in the field of education. Elements of the necessary skills can be searched, found and mastered not only within the school walls but also in many other places. He wrote about the creation of educational networks, about filling a person's whole life with learning [3].

When the book was written in the 1970s, and even when it appeared in Russian in 2006, it seemed that the author was very far from the reality of modernity, the school as an established institution seemed unshakable. But today the situation is changing rapidly. In the book Education beyond the walls of school: How parents design the educational space of children published in 2020 [13], we reveal in detail the gradual ‘unpacking’ of the school as the only place of education and show how the school turns into an element of a multiple space consisting of a variety of educational services.

Also, we must not forget the emergence of alternative forms of education, for example, family education, full-time and part-time education, numerous offers on the market of online educational services, unschooling, etc. [6].

Thus, it is possible to state a significant expansion of the educational space. In particular, there are three types of education: formal, informal and non-formal. We no longer equate the concepts of ‘education’ and ‘school.’ The expansion of general education beyond the school, the emergence of new access points that are not limited by vertical and hierarchical methods of management and the dominance of formal knowledge, lead to the emergence of new spaces of interaction between the knowing and the unknowing, the skilful and the inept, the adult and the child.

There is a new discourse in education—a discussion of the possibility of projecting the ideas of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into educational practice, and, at the same time, there is a new type of communication, in which the child’s voice begins to sound as the voice of an equal participant in the interaction.


We consider the analysis and consideration of the school as a total institution to be the first step towards understanding the school as a space that ensures or hinders development and maturation.

We believe that we have managed, albeit tentatively, to point out the important contradiction. Numerous studies in the field of developmental psychology, in particular, studies of the organisation of the probing action, represent predominantly a microanalysis of the act of development, implemented in laboratory conditions. Sociology sets a different focus: macro processes occurring in society occur in a variety of nuances and circumstances.

In the scrupulous view of psychology, the seeds of the new knowledge about development can be devalued by immersing them in the reality of social processes and circumstances or significantly distorted. Mechanisms of the emergence of new psychological characteristics may not work in real schools because they will occur in a situation that would block them. Therefore, it is important, in our opinion, not only to raise new research questions regarding the drivers of development but also to see the social reality in which these drivers are strengthened or weakened, or do not work at all.

[1] Let's recall the story of V. Rasputin French Lessons.


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Information About the Authors

Katerina N. Polivanova, Doctor of Psychology, Director of Contemporary Childhood Research Center, Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Professor at the Chair of Developmental Psychology by L.F. Obukhova, Department of Psychology of Education, Moscow State University of Psychology and Education, Moscow, Russia, ORCID:, e-mail:

Alexandra A. Bochaver, PhD in Psychology, Researcher, Center for Modern Childhood Studies, Institute of Education, National Research University “Higher School of Economics”, Moscow, Russia, ORCID:, e-mail:



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