Nurturing Learner Autonomy in the Classroom: A Guide to the Stages of Autonomy

Preparing children to become independent, autonomous learners is crucial in today's ever-changing world. The Stages of Autonomy guide learners along the path to independence, empowering them to navigate any challenges that come their way.
Nurturing Learner Autonomy in the Classroom: A Guide to the Stages of Autonomy

As the world landscape shifts in seismic ways, learners must leave their years of formal education prepared to handle an uncertain world.

The skills they will need–creativity, agility, and empathy, among them–will serve them in ways greater than the systematic, subject-based learning of traditional schooling.

Learnlife has built its innovative approach around the best way to prepare learners for such a future, creating a new learning paradigm based on research and best practices in schools worldwide.

Embedded in this paradigm is the role of autonomy, which empowers learners to become fully independent and responsible for their own learning path. 

The benefits of developing learner autonomy are numerous, with many studies showing how autonomy enhances wellbeing, self-esteem and motivation through the perception of control. In turn, curiosity, persistence, and self-regulation increase, and deeper learning follows. 

To set the stage for learners to become fully autonomous, well-adjusted learners, Learnlife created the Stages of Autonomy, a framework for moving learners along the continuum from dependent to independent learners. 

As Devin Carberry, Learnlife’s Innovation & Learning Director, explains, the Stages of Autonomy is a “skills' framework designed to help learners understand the gap between where an autonomous learner is on the continuum and how autonomous they aspire to be to begin bridging it.”

Learnlife was recently recognised by HundrED in their Spotlight on Gamified Curricula for our work with the Stages of Autonomy.

The education innovation organisation, together with mobile gaming agency Supercell, investigated schools and programmes that use gamification to make the classroom experience more motivating, inspiring, and meaningful.

As Learnlife’s Co-Founder Stephen Harris explains:

“The gamification component was needed to put the Stages of Autonomy into a structure that the kids could understand. 

“The game was ultimately a journey where they could actually manage and control where they wish to be in terms of gaining autonomous learning skills. Ultimately, they should be able to create their own learning schedule.”

The HundrEd report identified that “these kind of learner-centred experiences that require pupils or students to achieve milestones before moving on to the next level” gamify learning by imbuing it with intrinsic motivation.  

The freedom learners have in designing their own learning journey becomes an open-ended adventure, similar to how a child’s rich imagination might guide them through open-ended gameplay in Minecraft.

Behind every door is possibility, and they alone have the control to make it come to life.

Why is learner autonomy important? 

We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. 

It’s projected by the World Economic Forum that learners in this generation will change careers 5-7 times and that over 60% of the jobs they will have don’t even exist yet. 

This means that learners will need to quickly learn, unlearn, and relearn to thrive throughout their lifetimes.

Unfortunately, the traditional education model develops dependent learners who rely on others to learn, struggle to learn efficiently and are less self-aware about what learning will unlock deeper levels of happiness and growth. 

Creating a clear rubric-based skills framework around autonomy, applicable to any subject area, is vital to supporting learner success in a non-traditional setting without the built-in benchmarks of homework, testing and even grade levels. 

It makes it possible for learners to address the relative gaps in their autonomy and their ability to self-manage academic and non-academic aspects of school. 

In this way, young learners’ metacognition and ability to self-manage are developed as future skills in the context of everyday life. 

What do the stages of autonomy look like in practice?

The Stages of Autonomy were developed based on the neuroscience of strong autonomous learning. Six domains relating to being an independent learner were identified, with self-awareness an integral domain to all the rest.

Learners must be able to manage the six domains to become autonomous:

  1. Self-direction
  2. Self-determination
  3. Self-regulation
  4. Self-management
  5. Self-responsibility
  6. Learner agency

What are the four stages of autonomy? 

There are four stages of autonomy: Foundations, Guided, Independent, and Autonomous.

The Foundations level focuses on developing executive functioning skills, like time management and planning, needed to direct one’s learning. 

The Guided level is still largely led by the learning guides, but it focuses on transparency of learning methods so that the learners are prepared to design and execute their own learning experiences at the independent level. 

For example, if a learning guide is leading a project-based learning experience, they will openly talk about each element of designing and running a project–from finding anchor texts and contacting experts to deciding upon authentic outputs for an authentic audience. 

The Independent level co-creates learning experiences with their learning guides. The focus becomes more on metacognition, deeper learning, and project management. Independent learners can choose to participate in any of the workshops available to Foundations and Guided learners. 

The Autonomous stage is when learners take total ownership over driving their own learning. They design their own learning experiences and schedules and pull resources from the team as needed, such as mentorship or feedback sessions.

What are the main blockers to developing learner autonomy?

While the stages of autonomy can be described in discrete terms, in reality, there can be a lot of grey areas. One of the most important steps for growing autonomous learners is identifying key blockers that prevent learners from moving forward. 

These include low self-esteem, underdeveloped executive functioning skills, a lack of opportunity to practise agency and programmes not designed to enable autonomy.

“This is why we focus on building learners’ confidence, developing their executive skills, and providing lots of opportunities to practise, fail, reflect, and try again at being an autonomous learner,” explains Devin.

What does learner autonomy look like at Learnlife?


Learners join Learnlife from a variety of school experiences. Some have already developed the skills to direct and determine their own learning.

Others have been subjected largely to rote learning exercises (memorising based on repetition) in traditional school curriculums or socio-emotional experiences that have negatively impacted their ability to develop self-management skills, self-motivation and self-esteem. 

Learnlife’s programme is designed to offer each learner the right amount of structure and support so that they can develop into autonomous learners. 

In the ideal scenario, fully autonomous secondary learners will set their own goals, create their own learning plans and assess their own progress.

However, there is a wide continuum along which autonomous learning takes place. Therefore, opportunities for autonomy must be built into the learning experience as early as possible. 

A simplified version of the Stages of Autonomy is taught in the primary programme. It is called Stages of Readiness and was developed with three components: seeds, shoots and flowers. Specific skills, such as managing a device well, are addressed.
Throughout the secondary programme, autonomy is scaffolded for learners. Explorers, the youngest group of learners, naturally need more guidance and support than older learners. 

For these learners, autonomy is offered in smaller, more manageable pieces. For example, learners are encouraged to understand their personal learning style and make choices based on that knowledge. In addition, they are given many opportunities to choose areas of interest within larger topics or while meeting competencies. 

The overall structure of the secondary programme is designed to support autonomous learning. 

At Learnlife, building blocks replace the concept of courses for each programme. Each month, learners are given a menu of choices for each building block. Learners give input on what they would like to learn, and learning guides create a menu of workshops based on those interests. 

Learners who have demonstrated adequate self-management skills can participate in the self-determined learning building block that they co-create with a learning guide. They can also facilitate a building block, leading other learners in workshops of their choice. 

Those who haven’t developed adequate autonomy skills might also have scaffolding in place. For example, much of their programme may be designed for them until they feel capable of making their own decisions regarding their path.

Replacing testing with self-reflection

Learners’ individual goals around skills and autonomy form part of the regular learner-mentor conversations and the cyclic 360 degree learner growth meetings. Learners gain an authentic vocabulary as they grow their capacities as lifelong learners. 

There are different ways that learners track their own growth. Each cycle, learners fill out a Stages of Autonomy self-assessment to track their growth. It can form part of the evidence and outputs they share in their 360 meetings.  

Instead of using grades to chart their learning, learners participate in what’s colloquially referred to as the 360. This is a conferencing session held at the end of each cycle led by the learner and attended by invited guests (parents, colleagues, and learning guides). 

In this meeting, learners share their learning and growth for the cycle, how it matched their goals, and their new goals for the next cycle. 

Putting this process of charting one’s own learning squarely into the hands of the learners, no matter where they are on the continuum of autonomy, can be an eye-opening experience for them. 

Many learners are thrilled and energised by the process and being able to account for how much they accomplished and the strong feedback they received. For others, it is a wake-up call tempered by round encouragement and guidance from their chosen audience. 

For many learners, the transition to becoming fully autonomous can be long and punctuated by self-doubt, which is why focusing on building self-esteem and executive functioning skills is so fundamental. They become the safeguards which keep learners from veering off the path. 

Mentoring is vital to the conversation around autonomy. Together, mentors and learners can work on socio-emotional skills like self-esteem or cognitive skills like executive functioning. 

They can track autonomous learning by charting a learner’s progress along rubrics. Helping learners be aware of their autonomy in the different domains and guiding them through blockers and challenges helps them own the process for themselves.  

As the HundrED report states, “Learners have to actually show impact, and it’s multifaceted. The learners say, ‘In three months’ time, I want to have a rite of passage to progress to a different level of autonomy.’ Then they start preparing the information, whether that’s a video they’re making, a game that they’re creating, whatever the learning.”


Building learner autonomy through choice

Putting choice into learners’ hands gives them greater freedom to control their own learning. In this way, they can better manage the domains of self-direction and self-determination. Building blocks incorporate autonomous learning experiences through choice-based options. 

The “Math Dojo” building block is one example of learners having access to autonomous structures.

Rather than all learners learning the same thing at the same time, learners engage in level—and interest-appropriate maths activities overseen by a maths specialist in an environment where learners commit to supporting each other. 

As one learner in Math Dojo explains,

“Everybody has the freedom to bring in his own interests and put them together with maths and how they learn it. I started building up my skills in linear equations a year ago, non-programmatic equations, and trigonometry.

“I'm really interested in aircraft, and I know a lot about physics. So, this cycle, I started working with my Learning Guide Adrí on aerodynamics, drag forces, acceleration and gravity. It makes it so much more engaging for me.”

Another example is the unique Open Path Building Block, where learners can spend time entirely focused on their own independent projects.

Learners can focus on skill development around a personal interest, such as sewing or video editing, or they can address one or multiple projects at a time with the assistance of a learning guide as needed. 

As Devin explains, “Open Path helps learners reconnect with their innate curiosity and desire to learn and to see learning as an organic, messy process that doesn’t have to exist within the tidy boxes of academic disciplines. 

“Learners who have never had the opportunity to develop autonomous learning skills often begin to realise that they would benefit from guidance, and can choose that for themselves, rather than having it mandated.”

Learning Guide Jim Connor sees the everyday value of autonomy in his work with Open Path learners.

“Some explore different topics, new topics that they're experimenting with, while others follow what they know, their passions. So figuring out how to manage your own time and do something productive with it builds a lot of autonomy just on its own.”

Creating a culture and community that fosters autonomy  

As with any systemic change, there must be a culture shift where learners and staff are aligned and on the same path. 

“The main goal is to embed a culture which is subliminally stronger than other cultures so that learners adopt an evident and strong culture of learning without thinking,” explains Stephen. 
“The impact on the learner community has been profound in a relatively short time frame. A stronger and tangible learning culture has emerged, one that is calmer, consistent, visible, understood, and aspirational. Its strengths have been the clarity of necessary skills and the nonjudgmental approach of self-positioning of learners on an autonomy continuum,” he explains.

Autonomy as a scalable innovation

One of the criteria for HundrED’s selection of the Stages of Autonomy for their report was that the innovations are high impact and have high scalability, with the potential to impact many learners worldwide. 

Learnlife has already begun scaling the Stages of Autonomy through its training programmes dedicated to helping other schools implement impactful education innovation. 

Learnlife offers Stages of Autonomy as a 40-hour training programme that helps schools implement systems to empower and grow learner autonomy within their existing curriculum. 

Learnlife has worked with school leaders to train 300 teachers in 35 schools worldwide and inspired many others indirectly through its biannual Inspire conference, which includes a workshop on Stages of Autonomy.  

As Learnlife Trainer Georgi Panayotov explains:

“We equip the teachers with strategies to implement more autonomy for their learners in the form of very specific, small things they can begin immediately implementing in the traditional classroom.

“On another level, we support them in implementing structural changes to create and implement more voice and choice, more space for autonomy, and to embed it more deeply within the learning experiences.” 

Useful resources for implementing autonomous learning in the classroom

If you’re interested in learning more about implementing learner autonomy in the classroom, you can access the resources below.

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