‘Degrees of autonomy?’ and ZPD

In the presentation to a whole school that I mentioned in the last blog (20 April), one academic asked about the Research Skill Development framework (www.rsd.edu.au) in terms of ‘degrees of autonomy’. Specifically, he asked about the theoretical basis of ‘autonomy’, seeing it as potentially highly value-laden.

The educational notion of ‘model, scaffold, withdraw’, is a simple continuum of student autonomy which emerged from Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The RSD describes autonomy in five levels, rather than three, because this better reflects the range of academic practice of facilitating student research skills. The five levels of autonomy in the RSD are:

Prescribed Research (Level 1) : Highly structured directions and modelling from educator prompt student research. This is where the modelling comes in- demonstrating disciplinary ways of understanding, asking and seeking. Large lectures, for example, are fantastic places to model the types of questions valued in a discipline. Highly structured activities, including ‘cook-book laboratories’ and other step-by-step procedures are ways of students engaging within the scope described by ‘Prescribed Research’; in these activities there is explicit development of the six facets of the RSD.

Bounded Research (Level 2): Boundaries set by and limited directions from educator channel student research. Boundaries, such as the banks of a river, place constraints, yet there is room for manoeuvring within these limits. Likewise, students have more scope in Bounded Research than in the Prescribed Research, yet there is still structure and guidance. Students will make choices of directions, approaches and outcomes from a limited provided range, but that choice raises the level of student responsibility for and ownership of the research process. It also limits student floundering when this is deemed by educators to be unhelpful to student learning.

Scaffolded Research (Level 3): Scaffolds placed by educator shape student independent research. Scaffolding on buildings can be used for renovations and new buildings of a variety of types. Likewise, the scaffolds placed for Level 3 provide structure, yet require a high degree of independence to work within that structure. Like in the ‘model, scaffold, withdraw’ framework mentioned above, scaffolded research is the middle ground of the RSD continuum of autonomy. Yet the jump from ‘model’ to ‘scaffold’ is frequently too large for students to accommodate (it is beyond their current zone of development), and so Bounded Research is added below Scaffolded Research in the RSD.

Self-actuated Research (Level 4): Students initiate the research and this is guided by the educator. The change of scope from Level 3 to Level 4 is qualitatively different: students themselves instigate, choose processes, determine appropriate data or information and use appropriate communication modes. However, the jump to fully open-ended research is a huge one, and so Level 4 requires guidance from educators in terms of instructions and, often, marking criteria provided in advance.

Open Research (Level 5 ): Students research within self-determined guidelines that are in accord with discipline or context. This is akin to ‘withdraw’, however, ‘degree of autonomy’ focuses more clearly on student learning than educator activity. Students determine all aspects of the Open Research, however this is not open-slather or slap-dash. Open Research is partaken in a disciplinary or cross-disciplinary context, and so the rigours of the context apply.

Unlike many educational continua, the five-degrees-of-autonomy continuum is not linear, but rather cyclic.  This means that First Year students are often given initially prescribe or bounded research activities, and over the course of a semester or year, given increasing autonomy towards scaffolded and sometimes self-actuated research. If some students work successfully on Level 4 research assignments at the end of First Year (see , this does not mean that they have attained ‘Level 4’ of the RSD; it means they applied the degree of rigour required by First Year to research processes, and that their research skills have developed in a specific context. As these students move to Second Year, where the conceptual demand both broadens and deepens, and the rigour required by the educators increases, students may be better served by prescribed or bounded research early in the year. And so a spiralling through the years of increasing autonomy, and moves back to higher degree of structure has proven to be effective in some contexts. In other contexts, a more linear approach has been effective. Explore the degrees of autonomy on the interactive RSD http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/framework/interactive/ .

The need for Prescribed Research activities may apply as well to First Year students as to Third Year students or PhD students. There are times when PhD students early in their candidature may benefit from a high degree of guidance, especially if studying in a discipline different to their previous studies, or in a different language. There are also times when First Year students may profit from higher degrees of autonomy. The degree of rigour expected will be commensurate with the level of study. Considering ‘degrees of autonomy’ raises teaching questions, the answers to which must be determined by the educator, whether as a lecturer of a large class or supervisor of one student.

The extended version of the RSD- the Researcher Skill Development framework (RSD7: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/framework/rsd7/), extends the original framework by two further levels of autonomy into a realm that is unequivocally capital R research, that develops new knowledge. Levels 1 to 5 may see the development of knowledge new to the studnt, but not necessarily new to others. However Level 6 is Adopted Research, where others- researchers or communities- use your approach, practices or knowledge. Level 7 is Enlarging Research, which expands, consolidates or refocuses the discipline.

Having seven degrees of autonomy places First Year students on the same continuum as university professors, so all are on the same page. And after all, that is the nature of ‘universitas  scholarium et majesterium’: one rule for scholars and masters.

Author: johnwillison

Senior Leturer, Discipline of Higher Education, School of Education, University of Adelaide.

3 thoughts on “‘Degrees of autonomy?’ and ZPD”

  1. The topic:’Degrees of autonomy? and ZPD’ is of prime importance for refugee young people in South Australian schools. My reading and research investigating their English literacy needs show that teacher support combined with clear and scaffolding instructions/directions are crucial for full student engagement and successful learning.The student desire for teacher experimentation with a variety of research approaches and their catering for individual student learning styles is also evident.

    1. Hi Judith

      Your comment ‘The student desire for teacher experimentation with a variety of research approaches’ caught my eye. I would have thought that these students may prefer ‘low risk strategies’. Why are they so open to teacher experimentation?

      1. In general you are correct ,John. However I hear that many students like variety and some.of the more capable absolutely require the more challenging research approaches.
        Those who ‘go for a varied approach ‘might not be able to manage too well but with careful teacher directions/assistance, they can make progress. It seems that they like to be ‘in the mix’ and feel that they are ‘making good progress’.Self esteem appears to be especially important to all of these students.

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