Autonomy and Structure

This is an opinion piece that began with reading an article from the Journal of Experiential Education about perceived personal growth and autonomy.

I work in a very structured environment. Every week, I am handed a schedule that informs me of what my superiors expect my group to do every hour. When working the day shift, I lead a small group on a day hike for up to seven hours, but I’m expected to cover at least three different classes and lunch, snack, water, and bathroom breaks. Our night shift is slightly more structured: my group is expected at large-group activities nearly every other hour. My ability to manage time effectively and stick to my schedule is an important aspect of my performance as an instructor.

I work with 10 to 12 year old students, many of whom have never been away from guardians or parents overnight. Students come to my colleagues and me with backgrounds ranging from no support for societally appropriate behavior to too much support from “helicopter” parents. My colleagues and I expect students to take responsibility for their actions, an often unfamiliar concept. This perspective, along with other unfamiliar routines, setting, and expectations causes students to long for the familiar – homesickness. Preventing homesickness is one main reason I operate with a packed schedule. Despite the inevitable consequence of homesickness, I believe that presenting students with unfamiliar settings away from their usual is part of becoming autonomous.

Research and personal experience says that operating under a schedule of one’s own creation does wonders for perceived personal growth, maturity, and time management skills. The article linked above notes that youth and adults on a guided wilderness expedition perceived more personal growth in themselves when the group was allowed to travel without overt guidance from instructors, even if instructors traveled within sight and sound of the group. In those situations, group members immediately saw the consequences of their decisions and had to take responsibility for themselves in order to arrive at their destination on time. While I do not have the flexibility to offer students the opportunity to take charge of their itinerary, I do offer them choices as frequently as possible.

I believe that people of all ages need practice in being responsible for themselves. My administration teaches my students, “You are in charge of you,” though instructors such as myself are present to help. Our students, who have had either no model for appropriate autonomous management or opportunities to be autonomous, need practice in both. While my work doesn’t give my students much autonomy, my colleagues and I offer these students a step away from comfort and towards personal growth.


About landje03

A passionate outdoor educator, I hold a degree in anthropology. While not a salaried academic, I pursue various thoughts stemming from my experiences and their intersections with others' experiences. I also love to start conversations, so comment if anything tickles your fancy.
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