Self Determination


“It is becoming increasingly clear that all students benefit when they are able to take deliberate control over their lives and learning…Thus, as we are considering bigger picture goals for students, it will also help to identify the kinds of knowledge, beliefs, skills, and strategies that underlie an individual’s capacity to be self determining (Butler, Schnellert & Perry, 2017, p. 44).”

While self-determination and self- regulation share common attributes (see Figure 1) it is important to remember that they are also two goals that exist separately from each other. In chapter 4 of DEVELOPING SELF REGULATING LEARNERS, Butler, Schnellert and Perry observe that fostering the capacity for self-determination is essential to developing self-regulation.

Self-determination, or the belief that you have control over your own life and learning, can be cultivated through experiences that allow learners to explore their strengths and limitations. Part of self-determination, then, is the understanding that your capacity for success in any situation exists on a continuum of ability and that ability can be refined over time.

Within a school context, autonomy is the unvoiced goal for all learners and in recent years formal education has purposefully moved away from a “sage on the stage” approach to teaching. This movement has not come without trepidation on the part of teachers, however. First, is the question that many educators have regarding their emerging roles. If they are not managing student learning by delivering lessons then what are educators doing? Secondly, since self-determination is a “combination of skills, knowledge and beliefs (p. 44)” that develops over time and changes with respect to context there is the reality that teachers, themselves, are still developing their own understanding of autonomy. Butler et al, in their discussion of SRL, state that it is helpful for people to “see what life-long, adaptive learning looks like (p. 44).”

At Nisga’a Elementary Secondary School, self-determination could be considered a political and an educational priority. We are not just a community of learners we are the Nisga’a Nation – a self-governing, First Nations’ society. As a new school administrator, and developing self-determinist, my challenge is to create an environment within which all members are able to explore their roles as learners and coaches while also moving from a “me” to a “we” philosophy of being. In other words, to create opportunities for administrators, staff and students to take control over their own lives and learning while at the same time fostering the collaborative skills and attitudes needed in order to function fully as members of an indigenous, Canadian and global community.

            So what does this look like? toy-story-3-slinky-dog

In hierarchical organizations it is not uncommon to hear the managerial expression, “Don’t let the tail wag the dog”. In 21st century communities, however, spirals of leadership connect the dog and the tail. All members are learners journeying more deeply into their understanding of self-determination and share their stories of risks, challenges and successes in order to co-create meaning with others.

On a practical level, school staff will model the behaviours of self-determination while coaching students in the skills necessary to become more deeply aware of their own autonomy. For this to occur, several key things happen:

  • in-service on HARD goals, mindset, inquiry and collaborative learning.
  • discussions (in a safe environment) about power, shared power and empowerment.
  • opportunities to share leadership and/or coach other staff.
  • conversations amongst support staff, Education Assistants, teachers and administrators about their learning.
  • a willingness to let go of the “teacher” identifier in favor of the “coach”.
  • reflections of what is happening at the “staff level” in classroom conversations and actions.
  • emotional support.

Shifting consciousness is challenging; it takes energy and, sometimes, faith that one is on the right track. Although, if asked, most people would agree that it is important to them to have control of their own lives, it is equally true that the majority of us struggle to make clear exactly how to do this. My own decision to become an administrator is the involved result of responding to several factors over the past twelve years: moving to BC from Ontario; moving to the Nass Valley from Summerland; participating in teacher actions in both Ontario and BC; immersing myself in a First Nations’ environment; and owning my own wellness.

Sharing our “stories” of who we are, what we are thinking, and what we are doing is the best way to create a strong school culture that values individual differences and education. In the past few years, my learning has encompassed wellness because I realized that because of anxiety, I had cut myself off from my coll
eagues, withdrew from my friends, and scraped by as a teacher. It wasn’t until I sought counselling for depression that I realized how limited I had allowed my world to become. While I don’t think everyone is depressedscreen-shot-2017-01-31-at-7-55-03-pm and anxious, I do think that we all struggle with direction and confidence, which can affect our ability to learn.

As the leader of my own life, and the co-leader of my school, I believe it is important to risk vulnerability for the hope of creating a bet
ter future. Thus, my first step will be to model the component skills of self-determination by sharing my risks, challenges and successes as a learning administrator with my co-learners at Nisga’a Elemen
tary Secondary School.


Butler, Deborah L., Schnellert, Leyton, & Perry, Nancy E. (2017) Developing Self             Regulating Learners. Toronto: Pearson.

Cosmic Egg. (Art work) Retrieved from on         August 21, 2016.

Idea map (2016) (Graphic illustration of professional learning by Martha Swinn, August   19, 2016)

Slinky. (Graphic photo) Retrieved from           infinity/images/7/7e/Toy-story-3-slinky-            dog.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20150515223331 on August 21, 2016.


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