Encourage Autonomy in the Classroom Now

How can you promote autonomy in the classroom? Instead of the “sage on the stage,” be the “guide on the side.” First, implement student-centered learning. Then you can coach your students to success.

Ms. Sneed and Mr. Grow Discuss Autonomy

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat at the side table with her student teacher, Mr. Grow. “Yesterday,” she said, “we discussed my philosophy of ‘lift, don’t push.’ In other words, don’t push kids through the curriculum. Instead, scaffold them to greatness.”

“That made a lot of sense to me,” said Mr. Grow. “But how did you make that change?”

“I shifted the emphasis from teaching to learning. To improve teaching, I had to change my thinking. At that time, the terms ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘guide on the side’ were educational buzzwords. They resonated with me – and my teaching struggle. I realized that there was only one way to become a better teacher: get off the stage and let kids do the learning. In other words, I needed to promote autonomy.”

Mr. Grow paused, deep in thought. Then he responded. “In college, I took a class in gifted and talented education. We learned about George Betts’s Autonomous Learner Model.”

“Ah yes, I know about that model,” Ms. Sneed said. “Dr. Betts advocated independent learning for advanced high school students. Although we’re working with younger kids, we can adapt his ideas. For example, his thoughts on students as teachers apply to what we’ve been discussing.

“I’m sure you’ve heard that old saying from Confucius:

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Mr. Grow laughed. “I sure have.”

“All of this boils down to one thing,” said Ms. Sneed. “We need to put kids in the driver’s seat!”

What does autonomy mean? Putting kids in the driver's seat.

Quit Being the Sage on the Stage

“About that ‘sage on the stage’ thing,” Mr. Grow began.

Ms. Sneed grinned. “I know what you’re going to say. Sure, I still get up there and teach. But instead of a sage, I like to think of myself as a coach. Then kids get the autonomy they need. Surprisingly, moving from teacher to coach made me enjoy teaching even more.”

“Hmm, I like that analogy,” said Mr. Grow.

Quit being the sage on the stage.

Learn to Be the Guide on the Side

“Sure,” said Ms. Sneed, “a coach spends hours planning and teaching. But when it’s time to practice, the players carry out the drills on their own. And when it’s time for the big game, the coach stands on the sidelines and lets the players do it themselves. That verb – DO – is what it’s all about. The kids must be doing something. They can’t just sit passively while you teach.”

Mr. Grow’s eyes lit up. “I get it. Teach so kids can do. That allows autonomy in the classroom.”

To encourage autonomy, be the guide on the side.

Autonomy Comes from Student-Centered Learning

Ms. Sneed smiled. “Exactly. Kids should be doing all the time. I believe in student-centered learning. Students do the work, not the teacher. Otherwise, they can’t grow.”

“At my college,” Mr. Grow responded, “they used that term all the time: student-centered. Until now, I didn’t really get it. When you use the word autonomy, it helps me understand.”

“So important,” said his mentor. “I’ll send you a link with some ideas for active learning. Why don’t you try one of them in your next lesson? Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion with ways to maximize instructional time in the classroom.”

Autonomy requires student-centered learning.

When Kids Have Autonomy, You’ll Enjoy Teaching

“As we’ve discussed,” Ms. Sneed said, “the teaching struggle is real. But when I gave my kids more autonomy, it got easier. As students took on more responsibility for their own learning, it lightened my load. Not only that, kids became more engaged, and the entire classroom took on a positive vibe. As a matter of fact, I believe that I became a better teacher.

“It’s hard to explain, but I know you’ll find that student-centered learning improves everything!

“With that said, though, direct instruction is still important. At our next meeting, let’s talk about how you can weave incidental vocabulary into your lessons.”

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