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Supporting Student Self-Determination: The Advisor's Role in Big Picture Learning Schools

Michelle Cox, Johnson & Wales University


Supporting student autonomy leads to better student motivation, engagement, and learning (Jang, Reeve, & Halusic, 2016; Pitzer & Skinner, 2016). To support student autonomy, research suggests three main findings: Give students choices; make learning relevant to student interests; and make content applicable to the real world (Su & Reeve, 2011). Very little is known about the nuances of supporting student autonomy, especially in student-centered schools where choices, relevance and real-world learning are givens. Therefore, this study is guided by the following overarching research question: What are the experiences of advisors in supporting student autonomy development at a Big Picture Learning school—which, by design, is fundamentally autonomy-supportive? This qualitative study employed a phenomenological, hermeneutic approach to explore the advisor’s experience (van Manen, 1990). Interviews ( N = 11) were conducted with advisors at five different schools in the Big Picture Learning (BPL) network, participants completed a reflective questionnaire, and document analysis was conducted on narrative reports ( N = 15). A pedagogically contextualized essence approach (van Manen, 1990) guided a modified zigzag data analysis process (Grbich, 2003). Data were analyzed in several iterations: within each case, across cases, between data sets and in the final integration (Lincoln & Guba,1985; Mertens, 2015). Findings indicate that the BPL advisor’s experience supporting student autonomy is one of judicious decision-making in a complex educational context that, although student-centered, provides the advisor with great power. Facing multiple sophisticated and wide-ranging decisions in the course of their work, BPL advisors draw on their inner resources and their close relationships with students to gather information, enabling them to choose the options they believe best support their students’ growth. Educational leaders and researchers interested in the educator experience in schools that integrate student self-determination may find value in this study. In addition to addressing practices in educational leadership, particularly in professional development and teacher education, this study addresses the potential benefit to students when the educator’s job is rich and rewarding. Furthermore, this study provides avenues of further investigation about the educator’s role in supporting student self-determination.

Subject Area

Pedagogy|Educational psychology|Secondary education

Recommended Citation

Cox, Michelle, "Supporting Student Self-Determination: The Advisor's Role in Big Picture Learning Schools" (2017). Dissertation & Theses Collection. AAI10684388.