Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Importance of Autonomy

Austin Scott is a remarkable man. An octogenarian, he is still teaching and playing the flute, the Irish flute, and the tin (or penny) whistle.
Mr. Scott holds degrees from Guildford College, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Columbia University Teachers' College, New York. He also studied at the Julliard School. His extensive teaching and performing experiences have brought him to Canada, England and the United States. Austin has taught instrumental music in Saanich, BC and was Conductor and Head of the Orchestra Department of the Nottinghamshire Youth Orchestra in England. As a performer he has freelanced in England and was a member of the Victoria Symphony for seven years.

But Austin Scott's parents did not put him in music lessons when he was a boy. His father was a musician, if I recall correctly, but Austin decided on his own to learn to play the penny whistle when he was in his teens. A lot of what he learned as a teen was self-taught and it was his own passion for music that inspired him to learn to play the flute at a professional level.

Austin Scott's story reassures those of us who choose not to dictate to our children about what they should be learning and when. In fact, this approach to supporting learning is now backed by some interesting research out of the University of Montreal that is uncovering how children develop healthy, lasting passions.

Psychology researcher, Dr. Geneviève Mageau, is studying "the determinants and outcomes of autonomy support in hierarchical relationships in general, and in parent-child interactions in particular". "To be autonomy supportive is to consider another (e.g., a child) as a separate individual who has unique needs and feelings and who deserves respect and self-determination (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 2000)."

Here are some snippets about what she's discovered:

"Passion comes from a special fit between an activity and a person," said Geneviève Mageau, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal. "You can't force that fit; it has to be found." www.livescience.com

"Children and teenagers who are allowed to be autonomous are more likely to actively engage in their activity over time," says Dr. Mageau. "Being passionate should not be viewed as a personality trait – it is a special relationship one develops with an activity." www.scientificblogging.com

"We found that controlling adults can foster obsessive passion in their children by teaching them that social approval can only be obtained through excellence," says Dr. Mageau. "An activity then becomes highly important for self-protective reasons that don't necessarily correspond with a child's true desires." www.sciencecodex.com

One of the three studies involved swimmers, skiers and musicians performing at a national level. Results showed that the participants' level of autonomy best predicted if they had an obsessive passion compared to a harmonious one, with higher autonomy linked with harmonious passions. This freedom mattered more than the child's own desire to specialize in their hobby. www.msnbc.msn.com