Transcript of my Keynote at the NACADA international conference in Hasselt, Belgium 8-11 July 2019

Student autonomy; creating positive change for students.

On first glance this formulated ambition seems quite clear-cut. Of course, developing autonomy is a positive change and it would be a good thing to create more of it. But in preparing for this keynote I was quickly confronted with doubts. What do we mean by autonomy? It is often interpreted as the freedom to choose but if so, then more choice should create more freedom and thus more autonomy. Then why do students seem to resist this autonomy? Why do they seem all too willing to relinquish that freedom and want to be told what to do? This is particularly puzzling if the development of autonomy is such a positive change.

A paradox

The paradox is supported by research that shows that more choice leads to less satisfaction. Iyenger and Lepper (2001) discovered with their famous jam experiment that confronting consumers with more options in jam leads to less purchases of the product and less satisfaction with the purchase itself. This is surprising because the autonomy of the consumers should have been augmented by the increase in options. Shouldn’t that have felt good and led to more consumption or at least more satisfaction with the actual choice made? Autonomy might not to be as straightforward as it seems.

A man and a priest

To stress this point further listen this “joke” I once told at another conference at my own university. A man goes to a priest and says; “Father, I’ve recently found out that I don’t have long left to live. I’ve decided that I want to go to heaven. I’ve done some research and believe that Catholicism is my best bet. I’ve implemented a strategy. I’ve had myself baptized, done the holy communion and developed a handy app to help me register my sins and remind me when it’s time to go to confession. I’ve come to you for added tips because I don’t know if it is enough.”

The Priest listens a bit bewildered and replies, “But sir, you have to believe!”. The man responses quickly by getting is notebook and writing down I have to believe. “No, you don’t understand” the Priest says, “you really have to believe!” The man underlines the word really several times in his notebook, “I really have to believe. Thank you father, this is good stuff!”

Students are like the man

The meeting between the two may continue for some time but the chance that they find common ground is remote. The story is funny and most of us teachers, counselors and advisors can relate to the priest. Students often request for clear and specific tips and tricks to change their situation. Thesis students can be particularly exasperated with their advisors; “why don’t they just tell me what they want me to do?!”. We are struggling the same as the priest to explain to the student that such a line of inquiry is exactly the wrong approach.

What is missing?

And yet, the man is proactive, communicative and willing to work. But is he also autonomous? If not, what is missing? I believe that most of us would say that a sense of responsibility is missing. But what should he take responsibility for? Many would probably say; for his own choices! I believe that this is incorrect. The choices themselves aren’t so much the problem as the consequences for those choices are. Consequences are uncertain and we have deep-rooted problems with uncertainty.

Caster Semenya

Ever since the emergence of the Enlightenment we’ve come to believe that knowledge creates certainty but generally it creates new uncertainties. I’m reminded of Caster Semenya, the South African 800m and 1500m running specialist. She is very dominant in her races and protests were made because many didn’t believe that she was a woman. This seems a very clear-cut and testable hypothesis and she was, ultimately,  subjected to a test and found to indeed be a woman. People were apparently unsatisfied with the result because the next accusation was that she had abnormal testosterone levels that could only be the result of doping. Again a testable hypothesis and her levels were, indeed, high but it was discovered that she produced them naturally. The “problem” remained and so it was decided that levels can be too high by definition, independent of artificially induced or naturally produced. New dilemmas are then; when is a level too high, how many measurements are needed for an accurate measurement, and what do we do with cases just under this level?

Science doesn’t create certainty

Science doesn’t create certainty and the entire affair has made me come to the unsettling conclusion that even being man or woman isn’t a black or white situation. Science has robbed my of a sense of certainty about even such a seemingly evident topic. This is a more fundamental fact than it may seem. Recall Iyenger and Lepper. We can easily equate varieties of jam to added knowledge, more jam represents more knowledge. Then we get the following steps; added knowledge leads to more choice, more choice leads to more uncertainty and more uncertainty leads to more dissatisfaction. Hegel stated that our ability to think creates a gap between us and the rest of reality. Our thoughts inevitably focus on the meaning of events and so we tend to have frustrations about the past and anxieties about the future. The future is inevitably uncertain while reality is in the here and now.

Change, an adaptive challenge

If autonomy is so harsh how can it’s development lead to positive change? Let’s first focus on the concept of change. Change refers to something fundamental as opposed to trivial. It is deep-rooted instead of superficial. A change can continue to develop but it can’t be undone. This means that such a change cannot solely be an acquisition of new facts and skills because they can easily be discarded. It must also be the development of new meaningful opinions and convictions to cement those fact and skills in us.

Heifetz, Grashow and Limsky (2009) consider such a change to be an adaptive challenge rather than a technical one. It requires a prolonged focus on the problem and, in doing so, staying frustrated, anxious and in doubt rather than looking for a superficial technical solution that provides an illusion of certainty. I believe that this distinction reveals a serious problem in education. We tend to develop technical solutions in the form of protocols, websites, e-learnings, webinars, moocs, and so forth, to help students learn and change. This change is what education is all about but we don’t seem to address the deeper adaptive challenge it entails.

Negative capability

True change is unsettling by nature. This is not essentially problematic. Robert Bjork coined the phrase desirable difficulties to express that the learning process is at its best when our brain is really challenged. Socrates was aware of this millennia ago and called it the elenchus. His method was to address something seemingly obvious and provoke quick answers and then slowly dissect the opinions of the other until that person was left in total bewilderment, having to admit that he was at a loss. For Socrates that was the moment that true learning could take place.

To accept the unsettling experience requires a leap of faith and I deliberately use this verb to express it as a capability. John Keats was the first to coin it as negative capability. This is the capability to accept uncertainty and stay focused on the fundamental issues rather than the quick solutions. Keats saw this as the way to artistic expression and Simpson, French and Harvey (2002) see it was a powerful leadership competency. I also see it as a fundamental characteristic of personal leadership or autonomy and I fully support the endeavor to create it in students. I usually tell them, provocatively,  that I am going to teach them to fail.

Suffer like an athlete

But if it is such a hardship how can we make it a positive experience? Indeed, some have stated, with the necessary drama, that “to think is to suffer”. Perhaps this is true but then I propose that we learn to suffer as athletes suffer. Their lungs burst with effort, their legs burn from exertion, their bodies bruise from collisions. And yet they laugh it off and go on, despite the uncertainty of outcome.

How do they do this? The answer is as evident as it is surprising. It is exactly because of the uncertainty that their efforts have meaning! Any game, sport or other challenge cannot be considered such if the outcome is certain. So I propose we teach our students a playful attitude because in true play our autonomy is a natural thing. Aristotle made a distinction between different reasons for acting, the Poeisis and the Praxis.

Poeisis versus Praxis

Poeisis focusses on a result. The end justifies the means. Think of the act of making a table. The goal is to make a good table and all the actions of fabrication are subservient to that goal. This attitude is fine for making tables but our man that went to the priest had the same attitude. He wanted to get into heaven and if all actions are subservient to that goal he would also be willing to lie and cheat and maybe even to murder!

Praxis focusses on the process. It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. Games are indeed a good example of this attitude. The act of playing is the goal in itself. Cheating or lying defeats this function at the core. That is what the priest tried to explain. Belief is belief due to the lack of certainty. I believe that the same applies for autonomy. It can only be true autonomy in difficult and uncertain circumstances and being able to handle those circumstances better is always a positive change.