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Competence and Earned Autonomy

@eduleadership

Part of an ongoing dialogue with Steve Peha—see my original post, Steve's initial response, and my first reply.

Steve writes:

Justin,

You had some great thoughts today. Looking for parallels with other professions is always worthwhile. And I love, of course, that you brought up Dan Pink's book and his ideas about Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory.

I think, within your analogies, there's a an interesting perspective--if we dig a little deeper.

In Deci and Ryan's theory, autonomy plays a role but probably not the fundamental role.

Before "autonomy" comes "competence." People need to feel "good" at their job; they need to be working at the right level of challenge. Strict adherence to standards will render one of the most satisfying and most important aspects of teacher competence virtually meaningless: the ability to choose the best curriculum for each of their students. With no opportunity to exercise this competence, we can assume that it will wither as time goes by.

When we cite the pharmacist or the architect or the artist or the teacher in the abstract, competence is implied in the definition. But when we think of real people in these roles, we have to confront a problem.

If you're a bad pharmacist, people will quickly get sick from your work. If you're a bad architect, your work won't get built. If you're a bad artist, you can always continue to make art but it's unlikely you'll ever make a living at it. In these lines of work, as in most, regardless of person's degree of autonomy, there's a "competence meter" built in.

Teaching has a built-in competence meter, too. We've just always been afraid to use it.

Again, I'll bring my ideas back around to you and your work as a principal. I'm pretty sure you're a great principal. Can't you tell just by observing which of your teachers is doing a good job and which aren't? Of course you can. And if you couldn't, you shouldn't be a principal, should you?

You're right that many people enter teaching looking for a sense of creative expression, much like an artist. Well, you're the one who's buying the art, right? What's it worth in Room 7? or Room 12?

We could have a much better system—with more autonomy for everyone including you—if we simply owned up to working in education the way everyone else works in the world. You have people you are responsible for. One of the things you're responsible for is their ability to do their job. If they fail, it's your failure. So why don't we let you hire them, promote them, fire them, develop them, and even (to some manageable extent) compensate them, just as we do in almost every other profession in our society?

In this scenario, you could solve the autonomy problem: better teachers get more, poorer teachers get less. As you develop teachers, and as they improve, more autonomy is granted. We even have a phrase for this in the classroom: "gradual release of responsibility." We give kids more responsibility as soon as we see that they can handle it. Parents do the same thing with their own children at home.

As teachers show to you that they can be more responsible in their work, you release to them more and more responsibility for their work—by way of increased autonomy. In this way, competence can be controlled and autonomy can be earned—just like we do with kids in the our classrooms. Or just like all my bosses have done with me in every job I've ever had and just like I've done with all the people I've hired and managed in my career.

Thanks, Steve—I look forward to responding soon.

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