Finding Motivation: Autonomy in [Home] School and [House] Work

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This series was inspired by my reading of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink.

  1. Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
  2. How Not to Motivate: Extrinsic Rewards
  3. Motivating without Stickers: Intrinsic Motivation
  4. Finding Motivation: Autonomy in [Home] School and [House] Work
  5. Finding Motivation: Mastery in [Home] School and [House] Work
  6. Finding Motivation: Purpose in [Home] School and [House] Work

What is Autonomy?

autonomy, (aw-ton-uh-mee)
n.

  1. independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions: the autonomy of the individual.
  2. the condition of being autonomous; self-government, or the right of self-government; independence.

Drive summarizes autonomy as it relates to motivation this way:

People need autonomy over task (what they do), time (when they do it), team (who they do it with), and technique (how they do it).

Of course, particularly when we are speaking in the context of school and childrearing, we need to add that training comes before autonomy, and autonomy — personal responsibility in how things are done — is a factor to be introduced gradually. We don’t throw Kindergarteners into “self-directed study,” but we do want to keep in mind that self-directed study is our aim as we go along. We want also to avoid the ditch of throwing a high school or college student unprepared into independence and responsibility.

Moreover, autonomy – at least in Drive – is not “do whatever you want.” Autonomy is taking on a task, an assigned task, and completing it without being micromanaged and babysat. The autonomous employee or student is still given the goal, task, or duty and is still accountable to his authority for the result. Yet, also, Drive encourages “management” to allow some discretionary time for creative work; apparently several software companies use this tactic and give employees “20% time” or 24 hours to solve a problem or work on something they want to, unassigned, but still present their outcomes.

Autonomy in the [Home] School

Self-education is the only possible education. — Charlotte Mason

What are some practical ideas, then, for incorporating autonomy into our homeschools?

  • Allow the student to work off the checklist himself rather than get every task directly from mom (this eases wear and tear on mom and their relationship, as well).
  • Give the student the week’s picture rather than the day’s and allow him to plot his work and accomplish it as he chooses.
  • Instead of having to work through a science or history text systematically, allow him to pick what part he’ll read and/or write on.
  • Allow him to choose between this or that supplemental reading.
  • Give multiple narration or writing options and let him choose which to use.
  • Choose a subject or a term where the student picks what he’ll study and help him develop a plan of his own.

These are ideas that may or may not be workable in particular situations, of course. The principle, however, is that you should be aware of micromanaging and nagging and minimize both to the the greatest extent that your goals, circumstances, and the student’s maturity allows.

Learning is more directly the work of the student than the teacher. — John Milton Gregory

This year I’ve incorporated autonomy into my 4th & 2nd grade sons’ work by posting their “independent work” checklist on the whiteboard and expecting them to accomplish each thing when I send them to do it. I tell them “do your independent work,” and I don’t care what order they do it in or where they do it. They report to me, bringing their finished work, when they have completed the checklist. Sometimes it’s under an hour, sometimes it’s been three hours. Sometimes it’s half an hour and then an hour and a half on top of that because they didn’t pay attention to the list on the board or their work or their books. In my book, that’s all life experience and probably more important understanding than anything they’re getting from Flying Creatures of the Fifth Day.

Also, I figure my goal in science in elementary is primarily to see and feel that the world is a fascinating place, and one worth wondering and reading about. So, I have 4 different volumes of the Apologia elementary science books, and their daily assignment is to pick one section out of any of the books – whatever catches their fancy – and read it and then write about it. I do, however, make them read the history spine in chronological order, but they have their choice between two books (by the end of the year, they should have read all of both) to read and write from each day.

Moreover, they have to label a continent map a week, but they only have to turn that in on Friday. They can do it all one day or spread it out; I don’t care.

These are baby steps toward self-directed, independent learning, but done under supervision and with accountability. We are not accomplishing major, involved studies and projects for science or history, but the skills of time and task management far outweigh that loss, I believe. Moreover, I believe this style mimics real life interest and learning and establishes the habit of “lifelong learning” in a sustainable way that teacher-choreographed, craft-heavy approaches miss.

Autonomy in [House] Work

I think autonomy in our own responsibilities around the house is more clear, obvious, and already practiced. We might use someone else’s schedule or list as a crutch, but they don’t usually work in our own particular setting without tweaking.

How and when we fulfill our home-related tasks is clearly part of home managing, our job. We’ve got that. It is unlikely anyone is micromanaging us in this area, for which we should be grateful.

And, with that gratitude, we should also practice that responsibility we have and be faithful with it. We are managers of our home and ourselves, and that’s a role that requires wisdom and faithfulness rather than rule-keeping. Don’t look for the right set of rules and regulations to follow, but engage yourself in your duties. I’ve already written on that in Poetic Homemaking.

Tomorrow: Mastery as Motivation

And now, from you:

  1. Mystie,
    Love the ideas on how to give more autonomy. I am going to be doing more of this for sure, as I just welcomed our 6th child into our home, and I NEED to.
    I wondered when you have read them the science books and write a bit, what does that writing look like? I have a 10 year old and a 8 year old who would be doing this. Thank you!

    • Congratulations on your little one! Yes, this being a pregnant/newborn year increased my motivation to pass off some responsibility. The assignment written on the board is

      “Write four sentences about your science reading.”

      That’s for my 9-year-old. He also does the same for the history reading. My 7yo writes two sentences and chooses whether it’s from his science or history.

      I just grabbed a couple random sheets from their boxes. Here’s my 7yo’s (there’s an illustration): “The earth is about to cross a comet’s orbit. The dust in that orbit will make a meteor shower.” When they bring their work to me, I correct spelling and capitalization and punctuation and then they correct it.

      From my 9yo: “To be an astronaut you need to learn math and science. In space you could lift something that weighs as much as a building! In a space ship you need to be strapped to where you are! Water would ruin everything, so it’s in pouches.”

      Nothing amazing, but this is the first year I’ve required anything other than copying, so it’s a good first step.

  2. This is another fabulous post, Mystie!

    I, personally, had a number of conflict-type issues with my oldest until I gave him a lot more autonomy. It worked so well it felt like magic! But I think most children really do want to become responsible and it feels good to sow and reap without too much interference.

  3. I have an only child, and we use Time4Learning as our core curriculum. I just want to say that I agree that the independence sometimes cuts down on the friction. My daughter is 12 and we tend to be bumping heads more often. I would just add not to do math out of order. We did this a couple of years ago, I let her choose the order to do math, and it seriously messed us up for the year. Math is kind of cumulative so it needs to be in order. We do sciece in the order that my daughter chooses though and that works wonders for us! Thank you so much for sharing this, Happy New Year!