Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Students' autonomy, agency and emergent learning interests in two open democratic schools
by von Duyke, Katherine S., Ph.D., University of Delaware, 2013, 544; 3595010
Abstract (Summary)

This study investigates the relationship among students' autonomy, agency and emergent learning interests in two open democratic private K-12 schools. Surprisingly, I find that these innovative schools sometimes promote sometimes suppress student agency. I suggest that we need a new means to define education, as our current means seems to constrain even innovative projects.

I begin by tracing the historical path of liberal arts education down two paths for student agency. Historical classical liberal arts education concerned itself with the student as a thinker, while modern conventional education concerns itself with the standardization of students' acquiring content. This has lead to a split the means to empower students' agency. The first is agency-as-capacity in academic subjects, the second is as personal agency and relates to the first, as students are viewed as becoming more able as they master more subject material, but also expresses agency as students' ability to be self-determining, voice their ideas, and reflect critically on their own and other's ideas. I argue that the first path has taken over conventional education and leads education to be outcome based and focused on credentialism. In reaction to the loss of emphasis on personal agency in learning, innovative educators, progressives, democratic educators, free-schoolers, and unschoolers, have sought to return autonomy to students for their own learning decision and deeper meaning making in their learning. The democratic schools in this study follow a distinct line of innovation that departs from progressive educators in that they endeavor to protect and promote the development of students' political and epistemic autonomy through shared student and staff governance of the school and by underlying strong philosophical commitments against imposed curriculum. Out of this study came three findings. First, in spite of the seemingly chaotic environment with little culturally recognizable learning practices at both schools, I observed that children are learning and transforming in their abilities in culturally valued practices primarily through play. I suggest that the individual and cognitive notions of learning coupled with a Industrial Age work architectonic underpinning schooling practices makes it difficult for the students' learning at these schools to be visible to outsiders and sometimes to the staff as well. Student's play and other free choice activity revealed that learning can be evidenced through students' changing genres of participation.

Second, I found that in spite of the belief that students in autonomy supportive environments will find it easy to be engaged in their learning, middle school students, in one school struggled to develop their learning interests. Contrary to the schools' philosophy about the role of student interest in their learning, I found that student inquiries or even their interest is not necessarily the beginning of learning, and questions the notion that students self-determined autonomy is sufficient for their learner agency.

Third, in the second school, in spite of the autonomy afforded students and the ongoing critical dialogue that form a large part of the second school's culture and matching historically classical concerns for the student as a thinker, students experienced a suppression of their agency. The form of critical dialogue the school engages in I define as positive and modernist drawing on the work of Isaiah Berlin (1969) and define a second negative and postmodern critical dialogue rooted in the work of literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin.

Finally, I suggest that we need to move beyond the current Industrial Age work architectonic of conventional schooling. I recommend a playful/cultural architectonic based on the work of Marjanovic-Shane (2010) as a means to capitalize on the social nature of learning. A play/cultural dynamic can act as a counter force to the reification of knowledge, meaning making, and hierarchical roles in education that tend to suppress the development of students' personal and epistemic agency. This play/cultural architectonic of learning, in my view, better matches the kinds of transformation of agency that students' make in these autonomy-valuing environments. I suggest that schooling, if based on a play/cultural genre of interaction would support both students becoming more capable in culturally valued practices and support students' present and increasing capacity in enacting their personal agency. My conclusion i that we are still realizing students as co-participants and co-creators of the culture.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Matusov, Eugene L.
Commitee: Bartell, Tonya G., Hampel, Robert L., Marjanovic Shane, Ana
School: University of Delaware
Department: Education
School Location: United States -- Delaware
Source: DAI-A 75/01(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Curriculum development, Education philosophy
Keywords: Architectonics, Autonomy, Bakhtin, Mikhail, Critical thinking, Open democratic schools, Play, Sociocultural
Publication Number: 3595010
ISBN: 978-1-303-39902-2
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