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Autonomous education

After my first two years of teaching - 6 classes a day with 5 preps plus sponsoring the yearbook, newspaper, class plays, and speech contest, I wanted a job that required absolutely NO thinking.

And I got one.

During graduate school, I worked at the University of Iowa hospitals in the Central Sterilizing department. (We sterilized equipment, not living beings.) Each afternoon at three, I would put on a scrub greens, a hair covering, and plastic gloves and begin to make Three Gown Packs to be used during surgical procedures.

The process was simple. Lay a cloth wrapper (inspected for holes) on a stainless steel table, place three surgical gowns, a paper towel, and a bowl on the cloth, wrap it, tape it, label it with a wax pencil, and place it on a metal cart that would be pushed into the autoclave for sterilizing. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. For eight hours. Until eleven at night. 


After two weeks I was bored out of my skull and, like the rest of the college students working there, spent many of my breaks smoking pot in the parking ramp. The evenings went faster with a buzz. I still wonder how many people we may have killed - having perhaps missed packing a bowl - while working under the influence.

That job taught me that no matter how stressful, a job with autonomy beats one that has no freedom of thought or action hands-down.

Daniel Pink in Drive, speaks to the importance of autonomy in job satisfaction. And in a recent post in his blog, he recommends the book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans*. The wisest Americans (those over 65) say this about job satisfaction:

  1. Choose a career for the intrinsic rewards, not the financial ones.
  2. Don’t give up on looking for a job that makes you happy.
  3. Make the most of a bad job.
  4. Emotional intelligence trumps every other kind.
  5. Everyone needs autonomy.

My sense is that a lack of autonomy is a very real reason a lot of kids either tune out or drop out of school. Not given choices, not given the chance to be creative, and not given the opportunity to work socially, school becomes as mindless as a soul-deadening job. 

That's why libraries and technology programs that honor students' individual interests and abilities by giving them access to materials of personal interest are so very, very important. The one-right answer, the one-right activity, the one-right course of study mentality is worth all our efforts to resist by offering autonomous educational experiences.


* I am not much of an advice book reader (although I've written one), but I would recommend 30 Lessons for Living. It's very down-to-earth with no startling insights or off-the-wall recommendations. Just very thoughtful reflections from those who have lived a lot of years. One comment that is still running through my mind after reading it days ago is "You will never be happier than your most unhappy child." Think about it.

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Reader Comments (7)

Dang! I totally missed out on how to render livable my lab job running blood work on a Coulter counter during college. A vet lab, though the MD who owned it had us running his (human) patients' samples as well as Buffy's and Spot's. Yes, deathly boring, and suitable for a robot.

Hence the power of PBL:

April 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill

I just finished Daniel Pink's Drive (sorry--I can't figure out how to underline or italicize in a comment field), and I found it completely fascinating! It makes me re-appreciate why I love to spend my day doing things like book talks, research, and playing with technology instead of sorting my budget spreadsheets. And as a mother of small children, the part of the book about praise and extrinsic rewards as actually diminishing motivation was a real eye-opener! I might be saving a little money NOT buying stickers and Tootsie Rolls!
As for your career advice, all I can say is that the happiest people I know are musicians who barely make it month-to-month, but they live to play. It's inspiring!
As always, thanks for the insights, Doug!

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaria Burnham

Just catching up on reading after an extended break--mostly wrangling the now three small children--and it's nice to get back! I really liked this post, the "library miracles," and the Facebook reflections! Thanks for your ever-thoughtful posts!

April 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

Hi Bill,

I think everyone should have some mindless or physically demanding jobs as a kid. I know working construction for a year really changed my attitude about the importance of college and why that degree might be useful. I couldn't picture myself as an "old" man of 35 or 40, humping blocks and mixing mortar!

Thanks for the link too. Good article.


Hi Maria,

Be sure to read Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards. That's the one that really help explain why extrinsic rewareds are actually dangerous.

Enjoy you work!


Thanks, Libby. I appreciate the kind words.

Have fun with your kids. They stay little for far too short a time!


April 20, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

After high school and one year at a tech school, I worked as a Nurses Aide for a while. There is nothing like giving enemas for a living to convince one of the value of a higher education and autonomy! : )

Having said that, since I have no kids, does that mean I have unlimited happiness potential?

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeri Hurd

Hi, great post by the way! I totally agree with you. Autonomy is a big factor in happiness. I am a teacher and a tutor in NYC and I deal with a lot of pre-college students. I tell them to choose a major and a profession that will make them happy. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you are passionate about it! If you are passionate about what you do, you will always be good at it. If you're good at what you do, you will make a living! Its really that simple.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Hi Jeri,

Hey, you got early experience with assholes - a much needed whole (or hole) lifeskill!

Seems like I have ALWAYS had children and I am lucky they seem pretty happy. Maybe you are only as happy as your SO or cat or something?

Thanks again for the great evening of conversation and food in Bangkok. Great getting to meet Gerald.


Hi Michael,

Good advice. I wonder how many of as educators have followed it ourselves?


April 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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