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Earned Autonomy In Practice

@eduleadership

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

Dear Steve,
I think you're right to point to competence as a key issue in motivation, as Dan Pink explains in Drive. Certainly, increased competence should result in increased autonomy, in education as in any other profession. (I would add that feeling competent isn't enough, so I'll assume in this post that we're talking about actual—not just perceived—competence.)

From a management perspective, failing to provide increased autonomy to your most competent people is foolish on several fronts. It's a waste of energy that could be better spent on people who need more guidance; it's demotivating and irritating; and it risks substituting standardized practices for superior teacher-specific practices. There is great genius and wisdom in our nation's classrooms, and any principal who thinks he or she knows more about good teaching than every last teacher is delusional.

However, I don't think this is an argument for total autonomy, or the idea that everyone should do whatever they want in terms of curriculum or instructional techniques. As I will argue in more depth in a subsequent post, the opportunity to get better at what you're doing is far greater when you can collaborate with other professionals who are working to improve the same things. Moreover, teachers do not work in isolation; they together create an educational system that is responsible for students' learning over a period of years. Autonomy over certain types of decisions is important, but even top-notch people working without coordination will produce inferior results compared to a group of average people working as a team.

On your larger point, though, I agree—and I would argue that this is what happens in practice. Principals know which teachers are following the pacing guide meticulously, and which teachers aren't, and have differing opinions about these deviations based on their perceptions of the teacher's competence. In most places, proven competence buys you a good deal of freedom to rely on your own judgment when it conflicts with external mandates.

When principals insist on total compliance with the current fad, they're often doing so because they're under enormous pressure from above, and because detecting compliance is easier than determining when someone is doing a superior job despite their non-compliance. In cases where feckless reforms are forced on people who know better, non-compliance (or feigned compliance) is a rational and morally preferable response.

Some reforms are bad ideas and should be resisted, and others are good ideas and should be adopted with greater uniformity. How can you tell the difference? Listen to your best teachers, the ones who are willing to give the reform a good go, but aren't afraid to tell you when it turns out to be bogus.

Fundamentally, autonomy and common practices aren't mutually exclusive. Japan (to my knowledge) has a common national curriculum with pacing guides and very specific lessons, yet teachers are given extensive planning time to collaborate and work on their plans; if they come up with a better lesson, it can be submitted for acceptance into the national curriculum.

But why is there a national curriculum in many of the nations that are besting us in international comparisons? I'll take up this issue in my next post.

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