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Autonomy

For some time now the promotion of ‘learner autonomy’ has been one of the main tenets of the ELT professional discourse. It has drawn support from the body of evidence which shows that learning is a ‘constructivist’ process , i.e., learners learn by creating a personalised mental ‘model’ of the object of study (see, e.g., Littlewood 1984; Nunan 1999: Part 1). From this perspective, only the learner can do the learning, and therefore the greater the degree of autonomy the learner is given in the learning process, the greater the potential for learning. Thus, maximising learner autonomy in the classroom becomes an important professional priority.

However there are, of course, a number of factors in most ELT situations which make it difficult to put this pedagogical ideal into practice. For example, in Waters (1998: 13) a range of day-to-day ‘external pressures’ at play in the ‘majority’ ‘TESEP’ EFL teaching context are identified, all of which can significantly affect teachers’ ability to foster learner autonomy, such as the following:

  • shortage of time: getting learners to do more of the work for themselves takes too long;
  • examination pressures: results often appear to be better when the approach is more ‘teacher-centred’;
  • materials constraints: the methodology of the textbook forces the teacher to adopt a teacher-centred approach;
  • the head of department/headmaster/inspector threat: the ‘powers-that-be’ will not tolerate a more learner-centred style;
  • cultural expectations: the socio-cultural norm is for teachers to transmit knowledge and learners to passively absorb it;
  • learner resistance: learners, for all sorts of reasons, may be reluctant to take responsibility for managing their own learning.

Such factors do not mean that learner autonomy cannot be fostered in the typical ELT setting, but, rather, that it will be possible only to the extent that due account is taken of practical considerations of the kind just mentioned. As Illés (2012: 508) puts it:

Education cannot function without teacher control. How teachers exercise this control and how much they deem appropriate to relinquish should be their decision, based on the knowledge of their teaching context and their students in particular. Any model of learner autonomy should therefore be adopted only after careful appraisal of its relevance to a specific educational setting.

Examples of pedagogical ideas characterised by taking the norms of pedagogical practice that prevail in the prototypical English language learning situation as a ‘given’, and then identifying the potential for building incrementally on this foundation, so that an appropriate element of work aimed at fostering learner autonomy is also introduced, include Sturtridge 1982, Allwright 1988, Clarke 1989, Stevick 1996: Ch. 8, Littlewood 1997, Waters 1998, Spratt et al. 2002 and Illés 2012.

For example, in Clarke (1989), one of the ‘stock in trade’ features of pedagogy in the type of language learning situation in question – the grammar structure substitution table – is introduced and worked with first of all in a conventional, ‘teacher-directed’ way. Following this, however, the learners go on to i) create a parallel table of their own, ii) then complete a ‘gapped’ version of a similar table, and iii) finally, construct a new, parallel table of their own and try it out on their fellow learners (cf. Stevick 1996: Ch. 8).

By such forms of ‘re-invention’, whereby widespread existing pedagogical practice has been both simultaneously retained and redeveloped, it is possible to see how the sometimes overblown pro-autonomy rhetoric of the ELT professional discourse (Smith 2008) can be brought down to earth and made to work in practice in the everyday ELT setting.

References:

Allwright, R. L. (1988). Autonomy and individualisation in whole-class instruction. In A. Brookes & P. Grundy (Eds.), ELT Documents 13: Individualization and autonomy in language learning (pp. 35-44). London: Modern English Publications, British Council.

Clarke, D. F. (1989). Materials adaptation: why leave it all to the teacher? ELT Journal, 43(2), 133-141.

Nunan, D. (1999). Second language teaching & learning. Boston, Mass.: Heinle & Heinle.

Illés, É. (2012). Learner autonomy revisited. ELT Journal, 66(4), 505-513.

Littlewood, W. (1984). Foreign and second language learning : language-acquisition research and its implications for the classroom. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Littlewood, W. (1997). Self-access: why do we want it and what can it do? In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning (pp. 79-92). Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Smith, R. (2008). Learner autonomy. ELT Journal, 62(4), 395-397.

Spratt, M., Humphreys, G., & Chan, V. (2002). Autonomy and motivation: which comes first? Language Teaching Research, 6(3), 245-266.

Stevick, E. W. (1996). Memory, meaning & method : a view of language teaching (2nd ed.): Heinle & Heinle.

Sturtridge, G. (1982). Individualised learning: what are the options for the classroom teacher? In M. Geddes & G. Sturtridge (Eds.), Individualisation (pp. 8-14). London: Modern English Publications.

Waters, A. (1998). Managing monkeys in the ELT classroom. ELT Journal, 52(1), 11-18.

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