Autonomy – A Sorry Second?

At a recent educational event I sat as a practicing teacher and school leader with a panel of academics who have written about and studied autonomy extensively. They have worked with schools and teachers to better understand autonomy as an educational phenomena and a political instrument. My argument was that autonomy is constrained and is offered with conditions. What we really want is agency, what we get is autonomy.

Teachers inherently like to be trusted, to be viewed and treated as professionals and feel that they are making decisions about practice which are in the best interests of students. Teachers I would argue also like to have a say in how they explore and hone their practice and sculpt their thinking to attend to their own ongoing development. At every level, I wonder to what extent this is being fostered? Why might autonomy be problematic?

Autonomy doesn’t merely exist because a minister or school leader says it does or because they extol the views of a prominent commentator on matters of schooling. At the point of encounter, autonomy becomes susceptible to multiple influences, many of which are tough to manage. Autonomy also doesn’t exist because we might want a stealthy intermarriage between espousing trust in teachers while expecting them to meet standards; i.e. “we want you to feel trusted and feel you have choices, but trust us, this is what we are told works. So we can PD you in these methods which work. You can choose between them.” In an era of hyper-accountability and the intensification of uncertainty, autonomy, it could be argued, has been wielded as a rhetorical device to suggest freedom of choice, freedom to practice as we see fit ideologically, and freedom to control education to meet the ends and aims of those who ultimately govern us.

I would argue that autonomy is largely ‘defined’, both theoretically and practically at system level, then ‘constrained’ at the local level to meet demands. This means that it is hard to generalise what autonomy is and it appears flawed at the point of conception of purpose if outcomes are pre-determined. I say this as autonomy feels more akin to reduction of thinking and rejection of educational possibilities, whereas agency proposes new avenues for thinking, reflection and examination of our role in the education of young people. Agency seems more-and-more necessary in our work as momentum builds to conspicuously market particular methods or ways of thinking.

As movements such as Flip the System gain momentum, I believe we are impelled to consider our agency if we want to rearticulate what it means to be trusted while taking full responsibility for our actions as a contribution to other people’s education as well as our own. As Naomi Barnes notes in her reflections on Biesta and Tedder’s (2006) exploration of how agency could be possible, agency doesn’t come from nowhere, it is “something we volunteer”, it builds on the past (experience and professional narrative) and is acted on in the present as we notice patterns of what is making a difference in both our practice and consequently student outcomes.

If teacher agency is something that we wish to see schools build, that doesn’t artificially extent trust but does expect us to take responsibility for our growth and improve outcomes for students, there is some reflection to be had and some questions to ask:

  • What risk is there in striving for agency over-and-above constrained autonomy?
  • Who is defining autonomy?
  • On whose terms is autonomy being articulated?
  • Whose rhetoric, research or evidence is being situated within the promise of autonomy? Has this been democratically decided on?
  • How is autonomy being used to meet standards or goals?
  • Is autonomy funnelling and narrowing practice and thinking to a few prescriptions or ‘choices’?
  • Is there an opportunity to resist? What are the cultural and organisational consequences?

Agency is not something that one can have, “like a property, capacity or competence … it is something people do” (Biesta, Priestley and Robinson (2015). How will we know what could work best if we reject ideas or educational possibilities under the umbrella of autonomy, which can do the thinking for us beforehand? I do not mean that we should eject all evidence or become mavericks, but there is much to be said for asking expansive questions about what else can be done and how else we can grow. This is why Jessie Strommel’s tweet really has me thinking … and perhaps you also. If agency promises us possibilities, why settle for autonomy? Of course, we have to get on with ‘doing the work of education’, but at what cost to new thinking and the chance to develop agency?


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