Student Autonomy in Secondary Schools: The Potential for Development
This article explores the potential for the development of student autonomy in a modern Russian comprehensive school. Despite extensive evidence of the importance of teachers’ support for school autonomy in foreign studies and the global trend towards the development of an initiative and conscious position of schoolchildren in relation to learning, for the Russian psychology of education, the question of the value and practices of such support from teachers is currently insufficiently reflected. Studies on the adaptation of schoolchildren during the transition to distance learning in the context of the pandemic also confirm the relevance of self-learning skills, self-organization and autonomous learning motivation for successful learning in conditions of uncertainty. However, there is a significant shortage of research in the field of the content and prevalence of autonomy support practices in Russian schools. Experts representing twelve Russian general education schools located in various regions of Russia and positioning themselves as developing the autonomy of adolescents or interested in its development were invited to participate in the presented search study. 12 semi-structured interviews were conducted, the thematic analysis of which made it possible to identify the main ways of interpreting the concept of autonomy in the educational process, the benefits of supporting autonomy in learning, a list of key barriers preventing its support, as well as to describe a set of psychological and pedagogical practices to support the autonomy of schoolchildren implemented by school specialists. The necessity of transformation of the educational discourse in the direction of increasing the autonomy of schoolchildren and the dissemination of relevant ideas and practices in the pedagogical community is substantiated.
Keywords: autonomy, agency, adolescents, educational practices
Journal rubric: Educational Psychology
For citation: Rusakova A.V. Student Autonomy in Secondary Schools: The Potential for Development. Psikhologicheskaya nauka i obrazovanie = Psychological Science and Education, 2022. Vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 28–38. DOI: 10.17759/pse.2022270303.
The issues of free will and responsibility, dependence and independence, self-sufficiency and the need for care, etc., have long been problematised by philosophers [3; 4], but in education, they have long been discussed rather intuitively, through the use of notions of independence, subjectivity, autonomy, initiative, self-regulation and self-control, even activity, and in the Western tradition also the concept of agency (sometimes translated into Russian as agencyness). In recent decades, the topic of autonomy, understood primarily as the ability to act based on inner motives/values, self-determination, as well as questions related to the ways to support it in different environments, have been actively discussed in developmental and educational psychology. These have become particularly acute in the period of pandemic distance learning. We will therefore focus here on the interpretation of the concept of autonomy in relation to secondary school students and the repertoire of psychological and pedagogical tools available to educators to support the autonomy of secondary school students.
In today's world of high uncertainty and variability, educational requirements do not remain constant either. Society has a new demand for education; the federal state educational standard (FSES) requires that adolescents develop not only subject knowledge but also meta-disciplinary competencies . One of the world's well-known competency models is the DeSeCo framework proposed by the OECD, which includes three competency categories, one of which is the ability to act independently, i.e. the ability to take responsibility for managing one's life, to act independently in different social contexts . The OECD Education Compass 2030 identifies ‘student agency’ as one of the central reference points in the development of education until 2030, defining it as the ability to set goals, reflect and act responsibly to achieve change and justifying this choice with the belief that students are able and willing to influence their lives and the world around them in a positive way.
The COVID-19 pandemic and self-isolation have exacerbated the need to shift the focus of school education from subject outcomes to the development of other, meta-disciplinary knowledge and skills, in particular, initiative and active autonomy [6; 8]. The familiar institutional framework of the school context has changed, making it more difficult for students to complete educational tasks, organise time and allocate resources for study and homework. The physical inaccessibility of the classroom system, bells, classrooms and other familiar attributes of school life has demonstrated the need for intrinsic motivation and planning, goal-setting and self-regulation skills for successful learning.
The practices used to develop autonomy in the educational process abroad reflect the development of meta-disciplinary competencies. For example, F. Candy has identified six aspects of autonomy in learning. They are that a learner: has freedom of choice; can develop goals and plans independently of pressure from others; can reflect; has the will and ability to ‘fearlessly and decisively put into practice and bring plans of action to completion... without depending on others for encouragement and reassurance’; can exercise self-control; has a personal conception of autonomy . Schools such as Aarohi in Bangalore or the Democratic School in Hadera in Israel use the principle of autonomy, giving children the freedom to decide what and how they will study within the school curriculum. Students make choices based on their likes and dislikes and learn to justify and discuss their choices. In these schools, the idea of school self-governance is practised and disseminated. Another model, similar to the route-sheet logic, is used in Big Picture Learning schools in India: students set individual goals based on their passions and interests, and then they are given autonomy to determine how and when to achieve these goals. They must regulate their own time and timetable and look for the necessary resources. Independent learning goes hand in hand with the implementation of a set curriculum. Research on autonomy support in school, as well as students' perceived autonomy, has noted the importance of these indicators and their association with academic achievement, self-efficacy, autonomous learning motivation and positive behaviour [13–15; 17; 20; 21].
The exploratory study presented here sought to clarify the meaning of the construct of adolescent autonomy in the perceptions of the leadership of Russian secondary schools that position themselves as developing adolescent autonomy, and the practices of supporting/restricting it that are prevalent in these schools. It was hoped that the catalogue of pedagogical or psycho-pedagogical practices that support autonomy and show its effectiveness could be useful for specialists in other schools who do not officially focus their activities on developing adolescent autonomy but who see this as a promising area for the development of their organisations and educational programmes.
This qualitative research aims to establish the potential for the development of student autonomy in contemporary Russian general education schools and to describe the psychological and pedagogical practices that support it.
The key research questions are formulated as follows: 1) How does the idea of autonomy function in different schools? 2) How does it translate into concrete educational practices? To answer these questions, qualitative research including expert search and interviews was carried out.
Procedure. The criteria for selecting participants for the in-depth interview were as follows: 1) Work in a state school, as we were prospectively interested in the possibility of extending the practices found to other schools; moreover, state schools have several limitations compared to private education (less freedom in curriculum development, more control over students), making the development of autonomy within the state school a particularly interesting object of research. 2) Positioning the school where the potential expert works as developing autonomy or interested in developing student autonomy: such schools were sought through participation in conferences on education, analysis of information on websites and social networks of educational organisations and the ‘snowball’ method. 3) Leading or at least non-ranking pedagogical position of expert, work experience of at least 3 years, personal interest in the topic of student autonomy development and willingness to cooperate with the researcher.
Selection. Twelve experts from different schools from the following regions took part in the study: Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, St. Petersburg, Tomsk, Perm, Moscow, Moscow Region and Bolshoye Isakovo (Kaliningrad Region). Because the experts who took part in this study live in different cities and the contexts of the schools they presented differ significantly, the answers turned out to be more diverse and multifaceted. The interviewees included four principals, four deputy principals, three administrators and one teacher working in 12 public schools, four men and eight women between the ages of 30 and 55.
Interviews. The preparatory phase included getting to know the experts in person, describing the research and concluding an agreement on a follow-up interview with a discussion of the topics and format. All experts gave informed consent to participate in the interview and to be audio-recorded and to publish the results in a summarised and anonymised form. Semi-structured interviews were then conducted with the experts according to the developed guide, relying on research questions. The interviews were conducted online and lasted between one and two and a half hours. The experts shared their understanding of the idea itself, the significance of autonomy for their educational spaces and what concrete practices these ideas translated into. Audio recordings of the interviews were transcribed and the text was around 200,000 characters long. The expert search and interviewing were stopped once the categories under study were saturated and repetitions appeared.
The interview transcripts were processed using thematic analysis  in which we identified, firstly, several approaches to understanding autonomy, secondly, the main problems related to autonomy support in education, thirdly, the effects that autonomy support brings to the educational process, and finally, fourthly, several specific practices of autonomy support, which included assessment, homework, self-study system, tutoring, class and extra-curricular activities.
Understanding autonomy in schools
Eleven informants indicated that the development of autonomy in their schools was a value rather than a hindrance to the learning process. In one case, autonomy was seen as a hindrance as the emphasis in the school was on academic outcomes which, in the respondent's view, could only be achieved through controlling the students. At the same time, the school presented actively used practices to develop the autonomy of adolescents, including school self-governance.
The idea of what autonomy means was not uniform among the interviewees. Having analysed the interviewees' answers to the question: ‘What does your school understand by autonomy?’, we identified three types of understanding.
1. Autonomy as subjectivity (purposefulness, decision-making, reflexivity).
‘We have not previously described our practices in terms of autonomy and independence; the concept of subjectivity is more familiar. By this, we mean the student's ability to set an educational goal, determine how to achieve it, plan activities, communicate about problem-solving and achieving the goal and reflect on their educational experience. To be subjective means to choose and take responsibility for one's choices’ (N., teacher).
‘Certainly subjectivity. Every learner should feel like a decision-maker and not someone who is manipulated. We have been cultivating this practice in the school since 5th grade’ (T., deputy principal).
2. Autonomy as activity, independence, ability and need to make responsible choices.
‘Every word is important here. Once in a situation of uncertainty, in a situation where there are several options for action, a teenager understands how to gather information, how to feel which choice is right for them, to be able to highlight the criteria of choice, not to avoid the situation of choice, to be responsible for their choice to themselves and those who are clearly connected with them’ (A., principal).
‘It is responsibility for one's choices and the ability to admit mistakes. Not to retreat in case of understanding the wrong position but simply to adjust to changes’ (A., deputy principal).
‘It is the skill of the pupil to make decisions independently, without reliance on adults, the ability to make informed choices and to take responsibility for them’ (D., principal).
‘Pupil autonomy is the willingness to make a choice in the given circumstances, not only academic but also life choices and to take responsibility for this choice’ (G., principal).
3. Autonomy as the ability to design an educational route independently.
‘In adolescence, we develop autonomy in education. What does it mean to be autonomous in education? It is the ability to design your own educational route, to choose the subjects, the level of study, the tools and the pace of the material. The development of independence is based on the environment, including the teacher and the people who appear in the classroom. Consciously being able to make suggestions is important during adolescence’ (I., administrative officer).
‘Autonomy for a teenager in education is very important. It is the ability to interact with classmates and teachers, set educational goals, search for information, including on the Internet, be able to conduct a reflection on their learning activities, as well as to understand why school is needed and to be able to build their educational route’ (G., principal).
The differences in the schools' understanding of the phenomenon of autonomy are conditional. During the interviews, we found out that regardless of the name, the schools represented develop the same thing, teaching children: to make decisions; to choose and be responsible for their choices; to assert their position; to plan learning activities; to achieve goals; to reflect on their educational experience; to be independent in education.
Difficulties in supporting autonomy
All informants talk about the difficulties that schools face in developing autonomy for adolescents. Firstly, these can be problems due to the characteristics of adolescence.
‘It is important not to forget that 5th–7th grades are not about learning, not about education, so it becomes difficult for everyone at this point, no matter how strong students they are, no matter how masterful they may be in self-education techniques. So many kids who were successful in primary school suddenly start failing’ (I., administrative officer).
‘We are typical representatives of the modern Russian school which is on the way to transition from unconditional directiveness on the part of teachers and administrators to an ideal children's world, where children shape the curriculum themselves. Naturally, we have attempted through student self-governance to motivate children to be independent, but this does not always work out because of the age specifics of teenagers. They need support, a guiding person at this age’ (G., principal).
Secondly, problems related to parental misunderstanding.
‘There is also a part of children who are afraid to be independent because of particularly strict parents who control the whole process. Children from such families are not independent’ (A., deputy director for education).
‘Some parents interfere in the learning process, they do not like that the child stays after school for SSPS (school self-government) meetings instead of going home to do their homework. Such parents believe that the school should work for academic results’ (K., administrative officer).
Third, organisational, financial and regulatory constraints.
‘In the previous school (private), we had the opportunity to send groups of children abroad, where with educational field trips, the degree of autonomy of teenagers was increased. The children conducted excursions on their own. Here (in state school), it is more difficult’ (T., deputy principal).
‘We are not a private, expensive school, we cannot afford much. For example, a child suggests a project with a budget of 200,000 roubles, but the school budget doesn't provide for this kind of spending. It happens that investors are attracted to particularly interesting projects, but sometimes children get rejected, unfortunately’ (A., principal).
Benefits of developing student autonomy
Despite the difficulties, informants are unanimous that the development of autonomy—the ability to choose and be responsible for their choices, to make independent decisions, to set goals and achieve them—is necessary for the modern pupil in the current process, and that the skills acquired will help pupils to become successful members of society in the future.
‘Pupils take more initiative, gaining freedom and independence. For example, my pupil, who has implemented his own commercial projects, offered to share his experience with other pupils to help them build goals for the future’ (A., headmaster).
‘Children become motivated to learn when they make their own decisions. Choosing a topic for research, a team for a project and the opportunity to organise and conduct a lesson themselves for the younger classes—it motivates learning. After projects like this, students ask for more. Many graduates come to work for us to pass on their experience to other children’ (N., teacher).
‘Graduates, first and foremost, are confident about themselves and their choices. They are not afraid to make mistakes and know how to build an educational route for the future. Many now work in Europe, in international companies, where autonomy is an important component’ (I., administrative worker).
Tools for developing autonomy—educational practices
Schools which declare to work for autonomy do so, on the one hand, by giving teenagers freedom and, on the other hand, by organising this freedom with the help of special tools they have developed. Among the tools presented by respondents to develop and support autonomy, we selected the practices that showed the greatest effect from their application by experts. The application of these practices will help school managers to organise the learning process in accordance with the age specifics of adolescents as well as with the demands of contemporary society.
1. School student government
‘You give students the freedom to make decisions and influence, and they give you new ideas for development’ (K., deputy principal).
School self-governance in the schools we presented is not a scenario where students play according to the rules prescribed by adults in advance: it is participation in the development of these rules, making adjustments in the educational process, making project proposals, i.e. a real opportunity to show initiative.
‘Students make suggestions for changes, and the administration has to be prepared for these changes, otherwise, you create the illusion of freedom of choice’ (G., headmaster).
The organisation of self-governance in the school allows students to influence the educational process, show organisational and managerial skills, negotiate, stand up for their own opinions and resolve conflicts. It is an opportunity for adolescents to prove themselves, develop their leadership skills and feel themselves an important part of the educational process, but most importantly, it gives endless space for the development of autonomy skills in the school environment.
‘When we thought about how to develop autonomy, we immediately thought about assessment. Plans to develop student autonomy shaped our own autonomy’ (T., deputy principal).
Assessment in respondents' schools differs from the five-point system we are used to, primarily in terms of range. Rating, cumulative, criterion-based assessment, the options that respondents named, come down to one thing: to develop independence and awareness of teenagers, pupils need to understand how a particular subject, type of lesson, and form of the lesson are assessed, transparency is needed. The main difference between other approaches to evaluation is that they let students choose the type, form, and several tasks; students may not show up for tests or homework and get points in a different way that suits them; they get the opportunity to reflect on their growth in education. Moreover, the design of the assessment is discussed with the children and their wishes and suggestions are taken into account. Thus, students become the subjects of their own assessments and there is room for action.
3. Project and research activities
‘Research is not only a lot of points, but it is also interesting. When you get something done, you become interested. In the teenage stage, it is the law’ (N., teacher).
Finding an approach to developing autonomy in the compulsory parts of the learning process, giving the child choices while complying with the requirements of the FSES is not an easy task.
‘We all hold in our minds that if we give teenagers a big, extensive choice, it is likely that this type of work (research) will not be chosen’ (I., administrative worker).
The key in project activities, according to the respondents, is not to impose but to interest. Mixed learning works well here: senior pupils make projects for junior pupils, and they, in turn, take the initiative to repeat the experience. Another option is group projects in interdisciplinary subjects, where each teenager has an opportunity to prove themselves. The initiative should be shown at each stage of the project: setting goals, processing results, reflecting—what was accomplished, what was lacking and where improvements could be made.
4. The educational route
‘If you are thinking about where to start developing autonomy in your school, start with the route sheets’ (I., administrative officer).
The practice of developing route sheets for each pupil in a teenage school is a unique opportunity to develop autonomy throughout the learning process. The child independently chooses the trajectory (subjects to study), the extent of knowledge (depth of immersion in the subject), the level (easier or harder level of tasks within the subject) and the pace of passing (together with classmates, faster or slower). The individual educational trajectory is built by the students themselves, but the whole school is involved in this process. Curricula drawn up by the administration should be flexible; teachers should be prepared to change lesson content according to students' requests, and the tutoring service should be ready to support students in building the unique educational path needed by a particular child in a particular situation.
5. Educational field trips
‘An educational field trip is a unique opportunity for students to prove themselves’ (T., deputy principal).
Field trips are an extension of the itinerary with one key difference—it is a change of environment. The experience of learning in a new environment, orientation and adaptation and setting goals in a new environment make students more confident and independent, and form a subjective stance on education, which they then bring to their everyday, in-school educational route.
The respondents gave examples of what they considered to be the most effective educational field trips: the itinerary, the places to visit and the programme, which had been planned by the young people themselves. From the planning of the trip to the reflection at the end of the field trip, the trainees were involved in every stage. As a result, project groups of enthusiastic students have formed, making educational field trips a school tradition, and this experience is passed on to new students year after year, allowing more and more young people to develop their autonomy.
6. Tutor support
This form of autonomy support exists in only four of the schools represented but has an undeniable effect on building processes for the development of adolescents' autonomy.
The tutor's tasks are mainly reflective. There are assistance in constructing an educational route, parental consultations and individual and group tutorials with students. Such work makes it possible to define a universal goal for the child's education according to their age, adjust this goal for each pupil and communicate with families about how to observe and support the child's self-improvement work at home.
‘We believe that teenagers desperately need a tutor. We want them to become independent, but to do this, they need to feel supported and know that they are safe, that there is someone to help and guide them’ (A., deputy principal).
The above practices show how the idea of autonomy functions in the schools represented; they work together as well as individually. The application of these practices in the school puts the child at the head of their educational process, makes them an autonomous subject of education and positively influences the development of the adolescent as an individual.
Thus, autonomy is not just about providing choices in learning situations or giving pupils responsibility for the activities they engage in. It is also about promoting, supporting and encouraging students through specially organised processes to express themselves, express their intentions, take initiative, set goals, plan, reflect and identify their interests [18; 19].
The analysis revealed that the topic of autonomy development in general education schools is insufficiently represented in domestic scientific publications. Despite the high social and psychological relevance of this topic, the scientific ideas about the formation of autonomous behaviour in modern schoolchildren, as well as the factors of its development in the educational environment are ambiguous and fragmented. At the same time, autonomy support plays a critical role in supporting the optimal development of adolescents and their social adaptation . In an empirical study of how the topic of schoolchildren's autonomy is represented in psychological and pedagogical work, several practices were found that demonstrate their significance in terms of autonomy support, according to experts, and are available for replication in secondary schools. The description of these practices seems to contribute to the expansion of the traditional school psychological and pedagogical toolkit, as the working methods typical of the traditional teaching system are aimed at school control rather than at the development of students' freedom and autonomy, which does not correspond to the age specifics of adolescents and the demands of modern society. We hope that this study will draw attention to the need for changes in the educational discourse of the modern school and the development of autonomy of students, as well as other skills necessary for a child living in the 21st century.
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