From Compliance to Engagement: Autonomy in the Innovation Academy


Before joining the Innovation Academy, the biggest challenge I faced as a teacher was seeing my students struggle to own the work they were creating. Students worked hard, but often times, the motives were extrinsic. So while some were able to stay motivated, others simply turned the switch off. I would pour my heart into the planning of solid units to bring those kids on board, yet, it wasn't enough, no matter how hard I'd try to make it work. What these projects lacked was student voice and choice.

In fact, research shows that autonomy plays a primary role in the learning process. Different studies highlighted by the American Psychology Association concur that when students are given autonomy, they are more likely to feel self-motivated and there will also be “greater displays of active planning and self-monitoring of learning” and “higher levels of student awareness of their own progress and achievement.

Along these lines, when we started the IA, we chose to collapse the schedule to create a culture in which students could have control on their own learning as they worked on authentic projects over longer periods of time. In the IA, the students are able to be autonomous through various avenues that are purposefully built into the program.


Class Projects

When producing authentic class projects, students have to manage their own time and plan purposefully. For instance, in Grade 11, they investigate about an economic problem affecting Lima and create a documentary to raise awareness. Students organize their own field investigations to interview experts and film B-roll. Without the time to delve into their work and the trust to make their own learning happen, these projects wouldn’t be as meaningful to them.

Taesam, Mariano and Nicolas working on their documentary about economic inequality in an affluent beach town in Lima.

After all, genuine collaboration takes place when students are given the freedom to work autonomously. It empowers them to use their talents in the service of the group’s needs as they wade through the unfamiliarity of it all. Just like musicians who jam together to craft a brand new tune, students are given the autonomy necessary to tinker and combine their different strengths to create work of value.

But, what happens if a student doesn't value the project?

At times, students might decide to opt out of the class project and create their own. This raises the bar for students since they need to pitch the new project to their teachers to identify the concepts, content and skills to be learned. Students may feel isolated at times, but they persevere because they have buy-in. Dharma, in the current Grade 10 class, is working on her own art portfolio, while the rest of the cohort is creating a magazine. Even though she’s completing a different task that requires different skills and content, she’s still gaining the same conceptual learning as her peers through a different medium. By creating her own paintings accompanied by descriptive writing, she’s still learning that when we design and combine elements purposefully, they will impact the audience's experience.

Dharma’s art project.

The Independent Project

The independent project is experiential and student-driven; the purpose behind it, is for learners to get to know themselves better as they explore an area that triggers their interest. As they complete their independent projects, students get a clearer idea of career paths they might want to pursue after high school.

Projects can range from students creating their own businesses to following a specific passions like art and movie-making. Accountability is a key aspect of the independent project: students document the content and skills that they’ve acquired and choose a final product to showcase their own learning.

For their senior year, the cohort takes on the capstone project, which allows students to challenge themselves at an even deeper level.

For her senior capstone project, Isa combined the different strengths she has to start her own pajamas business


Students tweet about their internships

Internships allow students to iterate through different career options. During their summer vacations, juniors and seniors have the opportunity take an internship in an area of their choosing. While teachers help the students find their best fit, the kids are responsible for reaching out to their “employers” to set up their internships. This is an essential part of the experience for learners because it allows them to test possible career paths, so that they can make a more informed decision when choosing their courses in college.

Student Blogs

Excerpt from one Dede's blog post that delves into the perks of autonomy

Blogging plays a central role in the IA. It helps students reflect on their learning and improve as writers. In this post, Daniela reflects upon the high expectations she puts on herself. When Daniela joined the IA, she already possessed strong writing skills, but blogging has helped hone her voice as a writer because of the deeper introspection it instills. Blogging has played a central role in helping our students become self-aware learners and this in turn has allowed them to become better writers.


"For the college students of tomorrow, these soft skills, obtained through hands-on experiences, will be the yardstick for learning, not how many credit hours or semesters you have under your belt."- Fast Company

We live in a complex world in which we're constantly faced with unfamiliarity; in this context, knowing how to be autonomous becomes an essential requisite in our lives.

But education is still lagging behind; in a survey conducted in 2013 by the State of St. Louis, 60% employers surveyed were dissatisfied with job applicants' preparation for the real world. This speaks volumes about the discrepancy there often is between education and the real world: content knowledge is important, but so are the soft skills.

For these skills to be acquired, autonomy needs to be central in the students' learning journey. Yet to do this, we must first purposefully create opportunities that are able to sustain this mindset and empower students to take the lead on their own learning. We'd be doing them a disservice if we didn't.

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