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Autonomy in education: theoretical and empirical approaches to a contested concept
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Education. (STEP)
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
2015 (English)In: Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, ISSN 1654-2290, E-ISSN 2245-0157, Vol. 1, no 2, 28841Article in journal, Editorial material (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Autonomy is a widely used concept in education policy and practice. The etymology of the concept derives from the Greek autonomos ‘having its own laws’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015). As such, the debates around the concept circulate around individuals’ or groups’ ability and capacity to self-rule, and the governance and/or constraints, which limit such a capacity. However, autonomy has also been widely contested in philosophy, and as suggested by Rawls (1980), for example, the concept has been defined in a variety of ways. In educational research too, the concept has been debated from varying viewpoints, as, for example, scholars engaged in education history (Smaller, 2015), education sociology and policy (Ball, 2006; Apple, 2002), legal issues (Berka, 2000) and pedagogy (Reinders, 2010; Little, 1995) have all problematised and defined its meaning in relation to education.

When applied to educational practice, this nuanced and complex concept may indeed mean a variety of things. Take school-level autonomy as an example. Schools are complicated social systems in which multiple actors operate in different roles, and in which one's scope of action may affect the decision-making capacity of that of others. The question of who in a school community may possess autonomy (e.g. the teachers, the principals, or the learners) has fundamental implications for the ways in which the school operates. Also, the matters over which the members of the school community enjoy autonomy have important implications for what school autonomy means in practice. If we consider teacher autonomy more closely, it becomes apparent that teacher autonomy is often understood in terms of a dichotomous pairing of constraint vs. freedom (Wermke & Höstfält, 2014). It could be argued that teacher autonomy is always about constraint, and drawing from Gewirtz's and Cribb's (2009) work, we suggest focussing on the ways in which autonomy is constrained, as well as the matters over which autonomy is enjoyed and by whom. Therefore, teacher autonomy should be distinguished from other forms of autonomy, for example, school or local autonomy. Indeed, increased school autonomy, or local autonomy, as witnessed, for example, in relation to the Friskola movement in Sweden or Academies movement in England, does not automatically grant to teachers an increased scope of action (Kauko & Salokangas, 2015; Salokangas & Chapman, 2014; Wermke & Höstfält, 2014).

Moreover, the teacher autonomy debate has been influenced by and reflects wider global education trends and international comparisons. Indeed, autonomy has been a central concept in education policy in Nordic countries (Frostenson, 2012) as well as elsewhere (Caldwell, 2008; Glatter, 2012). Recently, this could be seen, for example, in relation to ‘PISA envy’, and the ways in which Finland's consistent success in PISA has been explained, at least partly, through its highly educated and autonomous teaching workforce (Lopez, 2012; Stenlås, 2011). However, as the contributions in this issue highlight, international comparisons concerning teacher autonomy must remain sensitive to the national and local contexts in which teachers operate, and consider what autonomy actually means for teachers in those settings (Salokangas & Kauko, in press; Wermke, 2013).

It is these complexities, inherent in the concept of autonomy, as well as its practical applications, that this edited collection was set to discuss and offer contributions to varied discourses concerning this important, widely debated, and contested concept. The special issue is divided into two sections. The first section presents three invited essays that offer theoretical perspectives on autonomy. The first two, by Gerald Dworkin and Evert Vedung, respectively, are not educational per se, but offer important conceptual contributions to the discussion. The third essay by Magnus Frostenson discusses the multidimensionality of the concept with a focus on education and teaching. The second section comprises empirical studies that discuss the concept of autonomy in different national and local contexts. The articles report on research conducted in Norway (Christina Elde Mølstadt & Sølvi Mausethagen), Germany (Martin Heinrich), Sweden (Sara Maria Sjödin, Andreas Bergh, Ulf Lundström) and England (Ruth McGinity).

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
CoAction Publishing, 2015. Vol. 1, no 2, 28841
Keyword [en]
Teacher Autonomy, Teacher professionalism, Autonomy, Comparative Education
National Category
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-271588DOI: 10.3402/nstep.v1.28841OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-271588DiVA: diva2:892583
Teacher autonomy in Sweden, England, Finland and Germany
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2016-01-11 Created: 2016-01-11 Last updated: 2016-01-12Bibliographically approved

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