Learner Autonomy is one of those ELT buzzwords, which everyone bandies about glibly. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, things are not as simple as they might have appeared at first glance. While Holec’s (1981:3) definition of autonomy, i.e. the ability to take charge of one’s own learning, is widely quoted, there is no single, agreed upon model of autonomy. Indeed, conflicting theories arise from different perspectives. Benson (1997) describes three versions, each linked to a different approach to knowledge and learning. Firstly, the technical version, in which autonomy consists of the successful acquisition and implementation of a set of skills and techniques enabling learning outside of a classroom context. Secondly, a psychological version, in which autonomy is defined as a capacity consisting of both attitudes and abilities. Thirdly, there is a political version, which places emphasis on control over the learning process and content. Oxford (2003) provides an additional two sociocultural theories, both focusing on mediated learning but differing in the degree of importance assigned to participation in a community of practice and the main motivation ascribed to the learner.
Methodology in relation to learner autonomy is no less straightforward: Smith (2003) identifies a “weak” methodology and a “strong” methodology for autonomy. The former, similar to Benson’s technical version, is a deficit model, requiring transmission of behaviours, skills and strategies associated with the ‘ideal language learner’ – itself a western conceptualization, which may not be appropriate in certain contexts. The latter is described as a “becoming appropriate” methodology (ibid: 138), which focuses on teacher and learners working together to identify and develop learners’ individual and collective capacities for independent learning. This approach to developing autonomy avoids the cultural imperialism inherent in the former: there is no penalty or compulsion to replace those autonomous behaviours that do not meet the standards imposed by the “weak” methodology.
As well as your own beliefs with regard to teaching and learning, choice of perspective and methodological approach will be influenced by different contexts and learning needs: it is important to be sensitive to these factors.
Personally, I have a great fondness for the social constructivist theory of learning, associated with cognitive scientist George Kelly, which emphasises the formation of connections between prior experience and new information, achieved through collaboration with others (Beatty, 2011). This is well suited to the sociocultural approach to learner autonomy described above, as both emphasise mediated learning and participation in a social group. In terms of methodology, I prefer Smith’s (2003) strong methodology, where the teacher works with learners to identify the autonomous learning strategies best suited to their individual needs, rather than transmitting a set of pre-defined behaviours. After all, how can we empower learners if we define them as deficient before we even start?
According to Vandergrift and Goh (2012: kindle loc 360), “metacognition, or the act of thinking about thinking, refers to the ability of learners to control their thoughts and regulate their own learning”. Immediately, then we can see some overlap between metacognition and learner autonomy (depending on which version you pick!), in terms of self-regulation. Vandergrift and Goh’s metacognitive sequence (ibid) brings metacognition into the classroom, using it to enhance learners’ ability to control the processes they use when listening, and thereby helping them become better second language listeners. How else can we increase learners’ control over their learning, and where does metacognition fit in? The rest of this column will look at practical ways of giving learners control, even in situations where there is a fixed curriculum and certain learning materials in use.
- 1. The first fifteen minutes
In my opinion, the first fifteen minutes of a class can be put to a range of effective uses in scaffolding learner’s autonomy, if used regularly to this end:
- A reading project:
You could use this time to give learners the opportunity to discuss their out-of-class extensive reading. The initial discussion could raise awareness of the benefits of this, of different approaches, of the pros and cons of different types of reading matter and other important issues. Learners could then be encouraged to find something they want to read in English. Subsequently, when learners have found something, they could be encouraged to set personal goals, in order to direct their reading. This could involve experimenting with different approaches and using their reading for different purposes (e.g. to read as much as possible for pleasure, to focus in on a particular feature of language, to mine the text for new vocabulary and structures etc.) Regular discussions would enable learners to share reading experiences and benefit from hearing about others’, as well as to see each others books, and to set new goals.
- An experimentation project
This works along the same lines as the reading project, but with a goal of encouraging learners to experiment with different out-of-class activities. You could provide a handout of ideas, and, as with the reading project, provide time at the beginning of a lesson a week for learners to discuss what they have tried, how they benefited, as well as any difficulties they had, and to decide what to try next. This kind of discussion minimizes the danger of learners becoming demotivated due to trying things and struggling: classmates are able to help them trouble-shoot any difficulties. Learners also benefit from learning about what their classmates have tried, perhaps becoming interested in trying those activities themselves.
- Concordance warmers
If you see your learners more than twice a week, an idea for another potential use of those first 15 minutes could be use of concordance activities. These put the learners in the role of language researcher. Once learners were confident in their use of concordances, you could introduce them to different corpora-based concordance tools, so that over time they develop the ability to investigate language themselves, to find out things that they need to know or are interested in knowing, without relying on the teacher.
- 2. During the rest of the lesson
Using a course book or fixed materials doesn’t preclude opportunities for helping learners increase their metacognitive awareness and become better able to regulate the processes they use. Here are a few ideas you could try:
- Vandergrift and Goh’s (2012) metacognitive pedagogic sequence: this sequence, which aims to develop learners’ awareness of their own listening processes, the demands of the task and strategies they can use to complete it successfully, can be applied to any course book listening task, to extend it and make it more beneficial for learners in terms of their development as L2 listeners.
- Reflection: Encourage learners to think about the why of the activities they do, as well as the “what”. Often when you ask learners to tell you why they think you have asked them to do a particular activity and how it could help them, they will say, “to help us improve our English”. In reality, activities have specific purposes within a sequence: they scaffold, in different ways, whatever it is we want learners to achieve by completing that sequence. By helping them see the purpose of individual activities, we enable them to be better equipped to help themselves when the teacher and materials are not there to do the scaffolding, thus helping learners become more autonomous in their language learning and use.
In conclusion, regardless of the institutional parameters we may find ourselves working within, we can bring learner autonomy and metacognition into the classroom. As Benson (2003:305) explains, perhaps “we cannot teach students to become more autnomous [but] we can create the atmosphere and conditions in which they will feel encouraged to develop the autonomy they already have”
If you are interested in metacognition, I recommend reading Vandergrift and Go (2012), which provides a very accessible insight into this fascinating aspect of learning. If you want to know more about Learner Autonomy, take a look at my blog site page www.reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/learnerautonomy . As well as all the references you will find in the posts listed, you will see a link to the 2nd ELT Research Blog Carnival on Learner Autonomy, in which various research articles on this topic are reviewed.
Beatty, (2010) Teaching and Researching Computer-Assisted Language Learning. 2nd Edition. Pearson Education Limited. Harlow.
Benson, P. (1997) The Philosophy and Politics of Learner Autonomy in Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. Benson and Voller (ed). Pearson Education. Harlow.
Holec, (1981) Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning. Oxford University Press. Oxford
Menegale, M [ed] (2013) Autonomy in Language Learning: Getting learners actively involved. (Kindle Edition) IATEFL, Canterbury.
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