The Clash of Paternalism and Autonomy at High Schools!

In high schools, the tension between paternalism and self-determination can create a complex dynamic that significantly impacts the development of young adults. Paternalism, which is often associated with the traditional authoritative structure of the educational system, can lead to strict discipline and a one-size-fits-all approach. At the same time, self-determination autonomy represents the need for students to have agency and autonomy over their learning and decision-making processes.

The clash between these two forces can have negative consequences, such as disempowered and restricted students who lack enthusiasm for learning, leading to poor academic performance and a decline in overall well-being. Conflicts between students and authorities can also arise, creating tension and mistrust. It’s like landmines planted in war zones, waiting to explode. Teenagers experience a range of social and emotional changes during this time, which they may struggle to cope with. This can result in rebellious behaviour such as bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancies and school dropouts. Treating the symptoms of these behaviours through detention and suspension is not enough, and proper guidance from parents, schools, or other institutions like Rudder4Life is necessary to educate teens about the dangers of the adolescent life stage. At Rudder4Life, we believe that the antidote for these rebellious behaviours is our Purpose4Life programmme based on our Rudder4Life Personal Development Framework (Learn more), which helps young adults Learn to Be (Learn more) .

To address these issues, educators, administrators, and students need to communicate openly and understand each other. A student-centred approach that values individual autonomy while maintaining supportive structures can help balance these opposing forces, creating a supportive learning environment that promotes personal growth and academic success. Here are some practical examples that illustrate how to achieve this balance:

  • Student-centered learning initiatives: By implementing student-centred learning approaches, such as project-based learning, students can take ownership of their education. Educators can promote autonomy while maintaining academic rigour by allowing students to choose topics of interest within a structured curriculum. For instance, in a history class, students can select a research topic related to a specific historical period and explore it through various mediums, such as written reports, presentations, or creative projects.
  • Collaborative decision-making: Schools can create student advisory boards or councils that work alongside teachers and administrators in decision-making processes. This approach builds a sense of responsibility and autonomy among students, ensuring they have a voice in matters that directly impact their educational experience. For example, before organising a school event, such as a fundraising carnival, a student advisory council can meet with teachers and administrators to discuss event logistics, fundraising goals, and activity planning. Students can propose ideas for games and activities while adhering to the school’s guidelines and budget constraints.
  • Personalised learning plans: Developing personalised learning plans tailored to each student’s strengths, interests, and learning styles can empower students to take control of their educational journey. These plans can include setting academic goals, identifying individualised learning strategies, and providing opportunities for self-assessment and reflection. For instance, a science teacher can work with each student to create a personalised learning plan that includes setting goals for understanding specific scientific concepts. Students can choose experiments or research projects related to their interests within the broader curriculum, enabling them to explore topics that resonate with their curiosity and passion.
  • Flexible classroom structures: Incorporating flexible classroom structures, such as alternative seating arrangements and diversified learning spaces, allows students to choose environments that best support their learning preferences. This approach promotes a sense of autonomy and independence while maintaining a structured academic setting conducive to learning. For example, in a literature class, students can choose from various seating arrangements, such as traditional desks, standing desks, or comfortable seating areas, based on their preferred learning environment.
  • Mentorship programs: Schools can establish mentorship programs that pair students with educators or older peers to provide a supportive framework for students to receive guidance and advice while fostering autonomy. These programs offer a structured support system where students can seek personalised mentorship while navigating their academic and personal development. For instance, a senior student can mentor a group of first-year learners, guiding academic planning, extracurricular involvement, and time management.
  • Extracurricular involvement: Encouraging student participation in diverse extracurricular activities, clubs, and community service projects provides opportunities for students to explore their interests outside the traditional classroom setting. This fosters autonomy by allowing students to pursue their passions and develop leadership skills while benefiting from the structure and guidance provided by school-sponsored activities. For example, a high school can offer a range of extracurricular activities, including sports teams, art clubs, and community service projects, and students can choose activities that align with their interests and talents.

John Dewey said,  “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”,  meaning that education is not simply about acquiring knowledge and skills in order to be successful in the future. Instead, education is an ongoing process of learning and growth that helps us to live our lives to the fullest.

Educators and school administrators should be trained to understand the significance of honouring students’ autonomy while also fostering a caring and nurturing atmosphere. This can be accomplished through workshops, seminars, and professional development programs that centre on student-focused teaching methods and conflict management techniques. By adopting a balanced approach that recognises the value of both structure and individual autonomy, high schools can establish a caring environment that develops personal growth and empowers students to become self-motivated, confident, and responsible individuals. Such an approach also sets the stage for a positive school culture that values both discipline and personal development, creating a supportive community where students can thrive and reach their full potential.

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