Autonomy can be described as a state of self-direction or self-governance. It is also a word I like to use with students when discussing their work. This is especially true since I read Daniel Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Autonomy plays a large role in Drive. As a matter of fact, autonomy is one of three factors (along with mastery and purpose) that Drive suggests are the most important in motivating people.
So, why is it that when students are not provided with detailed micro-managed instructions, they seem to freeze and are frustratingly less capable of getting the job done? Do students value autonomy less than everyone else?
I asked my students and they reported, to my expectation, that they value autonomy as much as the next person. I also found that they are afraid to be wrong, and when asked to decide which is more important, they seemed 'ok' with giving up some autonomy for the perceived payoff of less risk of failure.
That leads me to the question I didn't ask them.
Is there really any security against failure with less autonomy? Does having every decision about how an assignment is done or how one's work is presented made for you make it less likely that you will fail?
I guess the answer depends on how much weight a teacher places on such matters when figuring out an assignment's grade. I suggest that the answer, regardless, is, "No."
Directions are not bad. Having specific standards for successful completion is not bad. Holding students accountable for producing high quality, educated work is not bad. None of these examples are synonymous with a lack of autonomy. If specific formatting is essential to the assignment, then by all means be specific in your instructions. However, if you are looking for ten examples from American history that demonstrate an understanding of the foundations of the American economy, then does it really matter if students hand in a bullet list, an essay, a slide show presentation, or write a poem?
Autonomy is essential to motivation and growth. It is also a cornerstone of a free and informed society.
Sure, as the teacher you are responsible for directing the ship, but that doesn't mean not allowing students to choose how they enjoy part of the journey.
Find ways to promote autonomy. Engage with students in a manner that reduces fear of failure.
Do not teach students to freely give up autonomy for the mirage of security provided by complacent dependence.