Supporting Autonomy: For Creativity and More

Years ago, one of my friends, who had a houseful of teenagers, cried out in mock despair, “All these years I’ve worked to teach my children to be independent, and now they ARE!” Somehow the goal of self-directed children seemed easier before the children actually began choosing their own directions. Of course, her despair truly was joking, and she rejoiced in her children’s independence, even as she filled with normal parental worries. And, as the years have passed, those teens have grown into splendid thoughtful unique adults with teens of their own.

I thought of that interaction this week as I ran across Reeve’s article from 2009 discussing why teachers might choose a teaching style that was controlling rather than supporting students’ autonomy, even as we know autonomy’s benefits. It seems equally relevant today. As the world becomes more fractured and forces across the globe seem determined to control both thought and access to information, what could be more important than helping students learn to think and act thoughtfully?

Reeve, among others, has continued researching autonomy, documenting its benefits for engagement, adjustment, creativity, stress management, and achievement (see, for example, the research listed below). With such a list of demonstrated benefits, why aren’t schools rushing to develop students as more autonomous learners? Some are, of course, but as Reeve articulated so well more than ten years ago, there are pressures on teachers from all sides pushing toward a more controlling classroom dynamic. In a controlling style, teachers attempt to motivate students to adopt only the teacher’s perspective, intrude on students’ thoughts and actions in order to control them, and pressure students to think, feel, or behave in particular ways. And, of course, parents can fall into the same patterns. Sadly, those images seem very familiar. Reeve describes pressures from above (administrators, standards, outside views), below (students, young people), and within (teachers’ or parents own beliefs and experiences). You can find more details on those forces in the 2009 article.

For today I’d like to think more about the three “tasks” Reeve lists to allow teachers (or parents) to move toward a more autonomy-supporting style. First, he lists “Be less controlling.” When I first read that it seemed a bit simplistic, like saying to a struggling reader, “Read better.” But in considering the explanation, perhaps a better way to phrase the idea is, “Become more mindful about your uses of control.” When we become aware of the benefits of autonomy and the types of behaviors likely to stifle it, it is more likely we’ll choose to change our behaviors. The second task is “Want to support autonomy.” This is not as easy as it sounds, as the friend described above can attest. In the short run, quiet compliant students who appear to have no ideas of their own can make a teacher feel more in control (which I suppose they are) and more successful (which I would argue they are not). Understanding the deep benefits of autonomy-supportive teaching is necessary before any of us are likely to want to undertake the more flexible teaching style required. Not surprisingly, the third task is “Learn the how-to” of autonomy support. There is no specific technique that constitutes autonomy-supportive teaching, but any strategies that include taking students’ perspective, providing for choice and explanations for class activities, and supporting students’ sense of ownership over their behavior can be a place to start. The articles listed below, or a quick web search, can provide a beginning.

And if you are among the northern hemisphere teachers who are looking at the end of the school year approaching and thinking this might not be the time for new classroom strategies, perhaps it is time to think about what supporting autonomy might look like for the other young people in your life—your children, young friends, family members, or neighbors. All of them need opportunities to develop the autonomy that will build creativity and much more. Perhaps, summer will give them a chance. I hope so. The world needs young people to think and create and I’m anxious to watch them do it!

Núñez , J. L. & León, J. (2015) Autonomy support in the classroom: A review from self-determination theory. European Psychologist, 20(4):275–283. DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000234

Reeve, J. & Cheon, S. H. (2021). Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice. Educational Psychologist 56(3), 54-77.

Reeve, J. (2009). Why teachers adopt a controlling motivating style toward students and how they can become more autonomy supportive. Educational Psychologist 44(3).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s