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Autonomy in education: theoretical and empirical approaches to a contested concept: Special Issue of Nordic Journal on Studies on Educational Policy, NordSTEP
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Education. (STEP)
Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
2015 (English)Collection (editor) (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Autonomy is a widely used concept in educationpolicy and practice. The etymology of the con-cept derives from the Greekautonomos‘havingits own laws’ (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015). As such, thedebates around the concept circulate around individuals’or groups’ ability and capacity to self-rule, and the gov-ernance and/or constraints, which limit such a capacity.However, autonomy has also been widely contestedin philosophy, and as suggested by Rawls (1980), forexample, the concept has been defined in a variety ofways. In educational research too, the concept has beendebated from varying viewpoints, as, for example, scholarsengaged in education history (Smaller, 2015), educationsociology and policy (Ball, 2006; Apple, 2002), legalissues (Berka, 2000) and pedagogy (Reinders, 2010; Little,1995) have all problematised and defined its meaning inrelation to education.When applied to educational practice, this nuanced andcomplex concept may indeed mean a variety of things.Take school-level autonomy as an example. Schools arecomplicated social systems in which multiple actorsoperate in different roles, and in which one’s scope ofaction may affect the decision-making capacity of that ofothers. The question of who in a school community maypossess autonomy (e.g. the teachers, the principals, or thelearners) has fundamental implications for the ways inwhich the school operates. Also, the matters over whichthe members of the school community enjoy autonomyhave important implications for what school autonomymeans in practice. If we consider teacher autonomy moreclosely, it becomes apparent that teacher autonomy isoften understood in terms of a dichotomous pairing ofconstraint vs. freedom (Wermke & Ho ̈stfa ̈lt, 2014). Itcould be argued that teacher autonomy isalwaysaboutconstraint, and drawing from Gewirtz’s and Cribb’s (2009)work, we suggest focussing on the ways in which auto-nomy is constrained, as well as the matters over whichautonomy is enjoyed and by whom. Therefore, teacherautonomy should be distinguished from other formsof autonomy, for example, school or local autonomy.Indeed, increased school autonomy, or local autonomy, aswitnessed, for example, in relation to theFriskolamove-ment in Sweden orAcademiesmovement in England, doesnot automatically grant to teachers an increased scopeof action (Kauko & Salokangas, 2015; Salokangas &Chapman, 2014; Wermke & Ho ̈stfa ̈lt, 2014).Moreover, the teacher autonomy debate has beeninfluenced by and reflects wider global education trendsand international comparisons. Indeed, autonomy hasbeen a central concept in education policy in Nordiccountries (Frostenson, 2012) as well as elsewhere (Caldwell,2008; Glatter, 2012). Recently, this could be seen, forexample, in relation to ‘PISA envy’, and the ways inwhich Finland’s consistent success in PISA has beenexplained, at least partly, through its highly educated andautonomous teaching workforce (Lopez, 2012; Stenla ̊s,2011). However, as the contributions in this issue high-light, international comparisons concerning teacher auto-nomy must remain sensitive to the national and localcontexts in which teachers operate, and consider whatautonomy actually means for teachers in those settings(Salokangas & Kauko, in press; Wermke, 2013).It is these complexities, inherent in the concept ofautonomy, as well as its practical applications, that thisedited collection was set to discuss and offer contribu-tions to varied discourses concerning this important,widely debated, and contested concept. The special issueis divided into two sections. The first section presentsthree invited essays that offer theoretical perspectives onautonomy. The first two, by Gerald Dworkin and EvertVedung, respectively, are not educationalper se, but offerimportant conceptual contributions to the discussion.The third essay by Magnus Frostenson discusses the multi-dimensionality of the concept with a focus on educationand teaching. The second section comprises empiricalstudies that discuss the concept of autonomy in differentnational and local contexts. The articles report on researchconducted in Norway (Christina Elde Mølstadt & SølviMausethagen), Germany (Martin Heinrich), Sweden(Sara Maria Sjo ̈din, Andreas Bergh, Ulf Lundstro ̈m)and England (Ruth McGinity).

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
CoAction Publishing, 2015. , 98 p.
, Nordic Journal of Studies on Educational Policy, ISSN 1654-2290 ; 1 (2)
Keyword [en]
Autonomy, Teacher Autonomy, Governance, Teacher Professionalism
National Category
Research subject
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-271590OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-271590DiVA: diva2:892597
Teacher autonomy in Sweden, England, Germany and Finland
Swedish Research Council
Available from: 2016-01-11 Created: 2016-01-11 Last updated: 2016-01-12Bibliographically approved

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