Freedom, Schmeedom: Autonomy Support Is What Matters

By Don Berg

Talking about freedom may be hurting more than it’s helping the democratic school movement. Democratic schooling has a long rhetorical tradition that has touted “freedom” as a central feature of its pedagogy with many schools including “Free” in their names as a marker for it. As a psychological researcher who has done one of only two scientific studies that suggest that democratic schools actually get a measurable and valuable outcome that has never been found in mainstream schools, I contend that the rhetorical gloss of “freedom” obscures more than it clarifies the most educationally important feature of democratic schools.

The “freedom” rhetoric is dangerous to the success of the movement in two ways. Internally, the term is likely to mislead the community about what is necessary to succeed as an educational environment. The internal problem arises because “freedom” has a variety of meanings and can be used to defend a variety of contradictory positions. For example, I refer you to cognitive linguist George Lakoff's book Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea which is an exploration of the use of the word “freedom” in political discourse in the United States. One of the main points is that the extremes of our political field use the same term but mean opposite things with one side emphasizing “freedom to” do things while the other side emphasizes “freedom from” other things. This inherent flexibility leads to a situation in which both sides of a debate are using the same term to mean opposite things and the decision making that follows may devolve into mutual accusations of insanity and a contest of wills, instead of authentic consideration of the best interests of the community as a whole.

Externally, it is misleading parents who are considering democratic schools as an option for their children. The external problem arises from the same inherent flexibility in the term, but hinders effective communication with outsiders who are attempting to figure out what to expect from an institution that will become a major influence on the development of their beloved child. In this case, the same problem with misunderstanding arises but has another level of complexity with negative outcomes for the schools those parents are considering. Independent of whether parents share the same understanding of the term they may in either case disagree that “freedom” is what their child needs in order to become educated. I suggest abandoning the rhetoric of freedom and instead adopting a more scientifically respectable approach to helping everyone understand how education happens in democratic schools. Specifically, I suggest that the movement adopt the idea that primary human needs are the foundation of education and that democratic schools are especially good at supporting the primary psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

It is also advantageous to point out that no mainstream school has had scientifically credible evidence published showing that they support those needs. Two scientific studies published in peer reviewed journals show that democratic schools do. I conducted one of those studies with students at VFS and the other was conducted in Israel. You will notice that autonomy is one of the needs. That is the kernel of truth in the freedom rhetoric that makes it so tantalizing.

Autonomy is technically defined in psychology as the perception that you are the causal and volitional source of your own activities. Autonomy support is the provision of circumstances that enable a person to have that perception. Here in the United States, and much of the Western world, that is most likely to mean having choices, while in Asian countries it may not. Thus for us Americans it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking about our autonomy as “freedom.” But this is a mistake because of the slippery slope of ambiguity that the term brings with it.

The fact is that the three needs are interdependent. A circumstance that appears to provide freedom that is, nonetheless, inhibiting relatedness and/or competence will end up being need thwarting and educationally counterproductive. Autonomy support is a very clear set of behaviors. Plus, there is a clear opposite, control, that can be described with similar precision. This means that democratic schools can provide parents with a guide to the specific behavioral descriptions for the psychological supports they can expect to see in democratic schools. The schools can also refer to the behavior guidelines to be specific about what makes them special as an educational environment. Support for primary human needs is the foundation of education and democratic schools are one of only three models that have evidence showing they consistently provide that foundation.

Don Berg is the Executive Director of Deeper Learning Advocates. He is the author of Most Schools Won’t Fit co-authored with Holly Allen, Education Can ONLY Be Offered, and his upcoming book is called More Joy More Genius. His video Back to Basics 2.0 explores the relationship between primary needs and deeper learning.

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