Autonomy. This is a vital characteristic of a satisfying human life. As interdependent as we and other creatures of the earth are in our communal and global ecosystems, each healthy life system is also organized around some principle. As humans, for example, we make choices, we determine what we will or will not do, or how we will relate to the larger system of which we are a part.

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, autonomy is one of the three most important natural motivators of human endeavor and excellence, along with mastery and purpose. Unfortunately, one of the problems many of us experience in school systems today is that autonomy (more on mastery and purpose later) is no longer valued as an important motivator for learning.

The most popular book in the running of public school systems today in this country seems to be Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Gayle Karhanek. These authors advocate a new way of organizing schools through Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s). There are many components to the system they advocate, but I will focus on autonomy here. Let me quote several sentences from Chapter 2 of their book :

…a system of interventions is more effective when it supports collaborative teams of teachers who have agreed on what students must learn, and how they will demonstrate their learning—as opposed to attempting to support individual classroom kingdoms in which each teacher has his or her own interpretation of what students should learn, appropriate curricular calendars, and methods and standards of assessment. In short, they recognized that if they were to help all students learn, they needed to place a higher value on systems, coordination, and cooperation than individual autonomy and adult convenience.

The DuFour’s, et al. book has good intentions about effective responses when students don’t learn in a classroom; and I, among many educators, was happy to see that their suggestions put some responsibility on other professionals in the school to help when students don’t learn–and put pressure on all of us working together to do a better job of supporting these students.

Taking autonomy out of the equation, however, is not the answer to encouraging humans to work at their highest levels of achievement and happiness. Pink gives ample data in his book that the most successful organizations (e.g., open source initiatives) build their systems around autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Let us look closely at the above quotation, which deals with what makes a system of interventions most effective. This model (DuFour, et al.) of school systems management is organized around the idea of effective intervention (for the moment we will assume that they are right about what things make intervention most effective). The whole school revolves around what makes intervention most efficient and effective. Since intervention means the strategies we use when students fail, the school is organized around students who are not succeeding and how to enable them to succeed.

Is this wise? Especially since, as they go on to say, the most effective intervention involves dethroning teachers’ autonomy—one of the most important motivators of human achievement?

Is it wise to structure any general public school around one type of student or problem? Ideally the school’s organizing principle should be one that promotes learning by all students  at the highest levels, not just improving  performance for the lowest achievers.

As important as effective intervention is, it can only work in the long run if it doesn’t interfere with what is best for the learning of all students—not just those who are not currently succeeding. So perhaps in addition to being the wrong organizing principle for schools, the DuFour, et al. model may also not be the most effective type of intervention.

Part of the problem in understanding intervention may also be in understanding what “success” is in school. It seems that often in discussions about learning we assume that grades determine whether a student is successful or not in school, but this is clearly not a sound assumption. The most obvious exception would be the student who may be making an A but not learning anything—perhaps it is material the student already knew or was very easy and the student was not really being challenged at all.

These are important problems to clarify in the model described in Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap since so many schools are structured around it today. It seems to me that the authors have myopically focused on non-achievers, with respect to grades, and not on optimum learning for all kinds of students regardless of grades.

Success has also been thought of with respect to standardized test scores. Many charts in the  book represent student progress through a school’s standardized test scores. Standardized test scores can be important sources of data, but we all know that many students ace them before the year even begins, so basing a school’s success on them is not a reflection of whether all students are learning or not. Clearly the school as a whole may be improving because they are making more efforts at bringing up the low performing end, but these data do not tell us at what cost.

If the cost is loss of human autonomy and neglecting other types of students, clearly it is a price we don’t want to pay.

So if we organize according to individual learning for all students instead of intervention for the few, what would that kind of system look like?

I think a key ingredient is autonomy. In fact, if current psychological theory as described by Pink is correct, students will also benefit from a system that encourages autonomy for them. If we could motivate students to choose learning over non-learning, that would be a great accomplishment indeed. Why not build a system focused on the three principles Pink suggests—autonomy, mastery, and purpose? Then we would not only be meeting the psychological needs of all individuals in the system, but allowing for the greatest possible potential for learning and happiness as well. Why not structure schools around what is best in us? Emily Dickinson writes beautifully about it:


How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.

~Emily Dickinson