I spent the first day of the term in my Year 11 English class talking about the idea of autonomy and how I would to endeavor to create more of an environment for facilitating greater autonomy for the rest of the year. The easy way forward was to provide greater autonomy over student selection of the content we were studying for a variety of the NCEA standards. I suspect that for most of my students' schooling teachers had decided what the content was to be studied, and if they weren't actually outright dictating the content, they were providing a limited selection from which students could choose. I had done exactly this my first term and students, rightly so, didn't see it as real 'choice' - they saw it as "you can pick what you like as long as you pick one of what I give you."
My sole reason for focusing on autonomy is to try to increase student engagement. I was inspired by the book by Daniel Pink called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This text, and many others, argue that greater student autonomy (although the benefits of autonomy are not limited by any means to just students) leads to higher levels of engagement, while on the other side of the spectrum high levels of control leads to compliance.
But the problem I see now is not just student autonomy, it is also teacher autonomy. The sheer amount of assessment and reporting that is required by government education agencies forces teachers into compliance mode, teaching for the test, timetabled, fordist curriculum routines, and one-size fits-all teaching. It's difficult to teach autonomy from a position that is so controlled and it can result in a level of disengagement by teachers. If we want autonomous and engaged students, we also need autonomous and engaged teachers.
How can we change this? That's probably another blog post (or two, or three), but I think we need to start discussing the power and trust we have given over to politicians to influence education. We need to start asking the hard questions before we scramble for solutions to problems that are not really at the core of the tradition that educators know best; problems that are created by the media, by electioneering, or by the untrained, unexperienced with tall soap-boxes and hidden agendas. Whether politics hinders or enhances our educational system must be a core enquiry.