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Autonomy Tours in The Classroom

19 Jun

There is an essential dichotomy in education between knowledge for knowledge sake, and knowledge for other purposes, such as vocation. This division of purpose describes how knowledge in any field is positioned relative to other fields of knowledge. If I am studying Mathematics, for example, am I studying it to further my career as an engineer, or am I learning it for its own sake? This idea conveys a sense of the relative autonomy or heteronomity of knowledge. In the classroom students will often question why they are learning something. Will they really need to know trigonometry in their future lives? Why does the school not recognise their extensive and autonomous knowledge of Pokemon? Why study Shakespeare? Why study Latin?

I have written previously about semantic waves in the classroom. Semantic waves are an idea generated by Legitimation Code Theory – a perspective drawn from the ideas of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, authored by Karl Maton, and describes how ideas range from abstract to concrete (semantic gravity) and from simple to complex (semantic density). Knowledge building depends upon the strengthening and weakening of semantic gravity and semantic density. In this article I would like to look at another idea taken from Legitimation Code Theory which I believe has relevance for classroom teachers – the idea of autonomy tours (Maton & Howard, 2018).

I apologize for the highly academic discussion which follows. It is necessary I am afraid. The discussion is somewhat complex, but the idea behind it makes instant sense, I think, to any teacher and speaks directly to how we teach. How do we tie together different types of knowledge students are exposed to or bring into the classroom from outside? We are tasked with teaching a curriculum, but we also know that we need to leverage what students already know, or what they are learning in other subjects, and that we need to prepare our students for using what we are teaching them to solve problems or get ahead in life. But to give students useful cognitive tools we need to give them access to the rigorous and fairly insulated positions within the disciplines we teach. If we teach Maths we need to teach Maths properly, not just as a tool to help kids balance their budgets. We need to teach our subjects for their own values and worth (autonomy) rather than just as slaves to other purposes (heteronomity). But we cannot be blind to other purposes either.

In Legitimation Code Theory the notion of autonomy is expressed as a matrix describing the relative Positional and Relational Autonomy of any constituent (idea, actor, etc). What does this mean?

Positional Autonomy (PA) (the vertical axis) refers to how a constituent is positioned relative to a field. For example if the field is the study of History and you are studying the Russian Revolution, looking at the railway networks in Russia, this constitutes knowledge that has weak PA because it is not strongly related to the discipline of History. Looking at reports of debates inside the Smolny Institute might be considered as having strong PA because it is directly positioned as historical knowledge.

Relational Autonomy (RA), (the horizontal axis) on the other hand refers to how constituents of a field are related to other contexts or fields. This speaks to the question of the aim or purpose. For example, if my aim for looking at railway networks is to further my understanding of how revolutionary ideas were carried across Russia then it has strong RA towards the field, but if it is to do some historical train spotting it has weak RA.

Both PA and RA form a spectrum with gradations, varying from Strong Positional Autonomy (PA+) to Weak Positional Autonomy (PA-) and strong Relational Autonomy (RA+) to weak Relational Autonomy (RA-) as seen in the table above.

Describing these polarities as a matrix allows us to describe four distinct autonomy codes.

The Sovereign Code (PA+, RA+) describes when status is given to strongly insulated positions and purposes. Eg. using Historical knowledge to teach History. This is teaching the curriculum to learn the curriculum.

The Exotic Code (PA-, RA-) describes weakly insulated positions and purposes. Knowledge outside a discipline is used for purposes other than pursuing that discipline. Eg. discussing the rugby in a History class. It has nothing to do with the curriculum and is not being used to illuminate what is being studied in any way. 

The Introjected Code (PA-, RA+) also called the Roman Code describes knowledge from other positions being used for the purpose of pursuing aims within that discipline. Eg. using Geographical knowledge to teach History. Although not directly part of the curriculum, it is being studied to help understand an aspect of that curriculum better.

The Projected Code (PA+, RA-) also called the Trojan Code describes using insulated knowledge for other purposes, Eg. using historical knowledge for another purpose, telling a joke or making a point about modern parallels. Curriculum is being used for another purpose which lies outside the curriculum.

We have had to wade through quite a technical explanation above, but I hope to show now how this speaks to classroom practice. Learning which stays in one code risks never having any relevance to building knowledge. One of the greatest weaknesses in our education system is that students can display knowledge of something they have learned, but never be able to use that knowledge in different contexts, or to see the relevance in one discipline of what they have learned in another. Worst of all it is utterly divorced from their real lives. There is no knowledge building between disciplines and so students are being robbed of the ability to apply their knowledge in different contexts and for different purposes.

An understanding of the autonomy codes, I believe, helps a teacher to understand how they need to shift between the codes to maximise knowledge building practices.  The Sovereign Code represents the target of knowledge, but if students already grasp the concepts then staying in the Sovereign Code represents boredom and monotony, and if they do not understand the concepts then there is little opportunity to grasp them being offered. Staying in one code represents severe limitations on any course of study.

For most students the only field available to help leverage academic knowledge comes from every day knowledge (the exotic code). Teachers who do not range out into other fields to help students understand are missing an opportunity. Most classrooms see frequent journeys into the exotic code as the teacher tries to make material accessible. As a schoolboy in the sixties and seventies much of my education reflected a one way trip out of the sovereign code and into the exotic code. We might have been sitting in a Maths class, but all someone had to do was say, “What did you think of the rugby on Saturday, sir?” and all thoughts of Maths went out the window and the rest of the lesson revolved around poor ball handling and who should be selected to play against the All Blacks! However, trips into the exotic code are vital for anchoring understanding. Teachers often, quite legitimately, use knowledge of unrelated things to help explain an idea or concept they are teaching. Let us say a teacher is teaching a topic around international trade. Because students have little or no knowledge of trade between nations, the teacher might well use an analogy of how kids trade Pokemon cards, and bring that idea back to the context of the lesson. Without this trip into the exotic the concept might never have been understood. The key of course is the ability of the teacher to bring the discussion back to the point of the lesson, rather than getting stuck on the exotic and never returning. A return trip is needed between the codes, bringing the lesson back on point.

Equally, the ability to tie knowledge across different disciplines is crucial to building worthwhile knowledge. Students will often use Mathematical knowledge in a Science class, graphing data, for example. This represents inter-disciplinary knowledge building. Geography often presents knowledge relevant for the study of History, and so on. These return trips run between the Introjected and Sovereign Codes. If students are given a sense of how they might be able to apply the knowledge they are learning in other contexts, then we have journeys between the Sovereign and Projected Codes.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, however, is the notion of an Autonomy Tour, in which the teacher will lead a class from one code, through another or more codes and return to where they began. What is powerful about this is the idea that knowledge is being linked and applied in different contexts and for different purposes. Modelling such a tour teaches students how to build knowledge across different contexts and how to apply what they have learned in new contexts. The idea of the Autonomy Tour offers a powerful way of analysing what goes on in the classroom, but also describes virtuous practice. As classroom teachers it is vital for us to think about how we use our pedagogical approaches to maximise the benefits of knowledge building and plan our lessons to help students make sense of what we are teaching them.

Bibliography

Maton, Karl & Howard, Sarah. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.

 

2 responses to “Autonomy Tours in The Classroom

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