Reclaiming Autonomy: Could "Coaching" be the New "Teaching"?

It's tough to give up control, especially in the classroom. Giving up control means opening oneself up to the possibility that children may fail and that any number of outcomes could unearth themselves. What we often neglect to consider, however, is that some of these outcomes could be exactly what learners need, and most likely, even better than what we, as educators, could offer.

So when did we become so afraid of giving up control? When did we become so sure that capturing and controlling the many moments of the learning process would benefit us so greatly? To gain insights into the many possible answers for this question, we must go back in time, hundreds of years to the nascence of the Age of Enlightenment.

An Age of Mis-Enlightenment

While it may be hard to imagine that an Age of Enlightenment may be responsible for an age that seems so mis-enlightened, one must consider the context of the time. Enlightenment, reductionism, and empiricism were highly appealing some 200 years ago, as a reaction to an age when the scientific method was not valued like it is today.

When the scientific revolution took hold on the intellectual community, the "whole" came to be described as the calculable sum of its parts, with each piece contributing to a specific function within the whole. Likewise, should one of these parts or variables be changed, the resulting output would be changed in a manner that was traced back to the root variable. It is through this scientific method that we came to the practice of isolating variables, rationalizing everyday situations, and otherwise, attempting to capture, quantify, and control complexity through reductionism.

The Effects of Reductionism

The current mainstream educational model is similarly reductionist in this manner. It argues that variables can be augmented, and if the correct variables are augmented, then the proper outputs can be augmented, as well. In the case of education, this means that test scores go up, property values remain high, and as an unfortunate byproduct, autonomy plummets, as learners are no longer seen as autonomous individuals, but subjects upon which a great deal of resources rely.

And we're beginning to see the effects of this disembodied approach. Children are leaving school with a remarkable inability to think critically, solve problems, or function independently. This is due, not only to the input-output approach of many schools, but also the resulting lack of autonomy that accompanies an environment that seeks to control each of these inputs.

Reclaiming Autonomy

Fortunately, many schools around the country have already begun to circumvent this approach, aiming to reimagine not only the way we nurture growth in students by collaborating with them, but even the ways in which we create environments grounded in a culture of autonomy and student agency.

Gabe Stern, entrepreneur and Program Specialist at UnCollege, spends a great deal of his time working with young adults, ages 18-26, acting as a coach for learning, as opposed to a deliverer of instructional experiences. His interest in student autonomy was inspired first by the Sudbury School, committed to providing full learner autonomy to students at a very young age. He's used this inspiration to help students who go to UnCollege for advising and coaching through self-directed Gap Year programs.

"Everything is coming from them," he says. "Some may want to create a photography portfolio; others may want to write a script or learn web development."

But their goal setting doesn't stop here. UnCollege finds ways to support these goals in a learner-centered manner. They also help their learners find ways to get more sleep at night or learn more about cooking for themselves.

"Each of these goals are a means to an end," Gabe says. They ground themselves in capitalizing on intrinsic motivation.

"It's the thing that propels people," he says. "I help them harness their excitement, set long term goals to define where they want to be, and weekly goals that help get them there."

Capitalizing on Intrinsic Motivation

Even the most talented of educators cannot force someone to learn. In fact, one could argue that the ability to grow and change resides solely in the hands of the learner. Before any sort of personal change can occur, one must identify and accept that a change must be made before being able to take action on it.

As a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at AltSchool, a great deal of my work is focused away from specific content goals, and more on habits, ways of being, and ways of thinking. In my mind, it's more important that we set the stage for self-awareness, autonomy, and student agency, as these are the main drivers for intrinsic motivation. If one is an aware agent of his or her own journey, they are much more likely to take the steps to make a change.

In fact, as I continue to evolve in my practice, I notice myself taking on the role of coach rather than teacher, of making my students agents for the construction of their own knowledge and the pursuit of their own interests. I focus on making them the main energy source for their own growth and development.

I do this through conferring, observation, lots of space and time for reflection, probing questions that get me closer to an understanding of the child, as opposed to prescriptive advice that focuses more on fixing the child. In fact, in many cases, I now have children scheduling their own time, deciding their own projects, and tapping into the intrinsic motivation that comes from relevant, collaborative goal-setting. These align with not only human-centered instructional design, but also those of educational therapy, where the main objective is to help all learners, especially those with learning differences, develop clear thinking strategies that actually promote independence.

As a result, not only am I able to find ways to help children learn important core skills such as executive functioning, reading informational text, or calculating sums, but through coaching, I'm able to give them the "why" behind all of these skills. Through coaching, I'm able to help them see the relevance in skills that are all too frequently decontextualized.

"Autonomy provides the why," continued Gabe. "It helps them find their way."

Remarkably enough, despite the vast differences in the learners with whom we're working, we unearthed a universal truth, one that holds true for not just the student experience, but for the human experience, too.

A desire for autonomy not only develops a sense of self and a validation of one's unique interests and affinities, but it engenders an intrinsic motivation that propels individuals to learn for joy and fulfillment, sending them on a lifelong journey of growth, goal-setting, and the presence of mind that comes from being an independent thinker.

In an age that's so incredibly focused on being "enlightened," we seem to have lost a critical piece of ourselves. The autonomy we've lost can only be reclaimed through shifting the paradigm and placing it in the hands of learners. When we do this, we see that the goal isn't necessarily enlightenment or pure empiricism; instead, it's empathy: a deep understanding of the individuals with whom we're working. It helps us know and see them on a visceral level, so that each of them may reach their full potential.