Struggling for Autonomy in Language Classrooms by Nesrin Oruç Ertürk
Growing up in an education system where the tradition was to spoon-feed students, when I became a teacher I knew it was not fair to expect my students to be learners who take charge of their own learning. It was not fair because I myself as a teacher was not autonomous, therefore, shifting my responsibility to learners was not an easy process. In this short paper, I will be thinking out loud and discussing what learner autonomy is, and if it is really possible to train our learners to become autonomous learners in ELT classrooms.
Trying to decide on how to organize this paper, I came across a book on the concept that I was going to write about. Struggling for Autonomy in Language Education: Reflecting, Acting, and Being. I loved the name of the book mainly because of the word “struggling”. I do not know if this is how all teachers feel when the topic is autonomy, but I can say that this word reflects my own situation the best. The editor of the book states that “struggle entails reflecting on what fosters or hinders teacher and learner development, acting towards challenging and reshaping oppressive forces and circumstances, and being willing to deal with complexity, uncertainty and risk-taking, without losing one’s hopes and ideals”.
Among many definitions of autonomy let me start with one that is the most complex, yet fun to read. Candy (1991) states that:
At once a social psychological construct, a philosophical ideal, and a literal impossibility; and external manifestation and an internal tendency; both the beginning and at the end of lifelong learning; the foundation stone and the keystone of the learning society; a supplement to and a substitute for the formal education system; simultaneously process and product, a precondition and a purpose (Candy, 1991:424).
After reading this definition one can easily presuppose that, if a learner –no matter what they study- cannot learn anything if they are not autonomous. It feels as if autonomy is the “sine qua non” of learning process – an indispensable and essential action, beginning and end of learning. Is it really true? If so, how did I learn this language when it was believed that the passive memorization of grammar rules and vocabulary lists were enough for language learning and therefore there was no need for a more active involvement on the part of the learner? In todays’ language classrooms, the teaching of foreign languages is based on the communicative approach that focuses on the use of language in authentic, everyday situations, so the learner’s role has shifted from my role to a more active one. Still this does not explain how I learned English.
Anyways, let us continue with another definition of the concept. Tschirhart and Rigler (2009) in their article where they discuss learner and teacher autonomy believe that learner autonomy is a term that has been bandied about a great deal in the language learning literature in recent years. They say it can be a slippery notion because it is not always clear whether the term is meant to refer to a behaviour or an attitude; a right or a responsibility. It seems to be most commonly understood as a psychological attribute of individual learners, implying, above all, a capacity and willingness to take responsibility for one’s own learning and actively manage it, both inside and outside the classroom. The same definition of the term has been given by Benson (2007) to whom autonomy is the learners’ ability to take charge of their own learning. What does that “taking charge of” include? According to Cotteral (2000), in more practical terms, this entails students taking responsibility for various aspects and stages of the learning process, including setting goals, determining content, selecting resources and techniques, as well as assessing progress.
In that sense, it can be said that according to literature discussed so far, the autonomous learner is a decision maker of his own who exercises varying degrees of control at the levels of learning management, learning content and cognitive processes. Saying that, we should not forget that learner autonomy is a ‘multi-dimensional’ concept involving not just technical and psychological aspects, but also social and political dimensions. Benson (2001) also argues that we should not focus on the development of individual autonomy at the expense of social and political autonomy. These authors see autonomy as a political right and social responsibility: a group of learners collectively taking responsibility for, and control of, the processes and content of their learning.
Benson (1997) talks about three broad ways of talking about learner autonomy in language education:
- Technical Perspective: emphasizing skills or strategies for unsupervised learning: specific kinds of activity or process such as the metacognitive, cognitive, social and other strategies;
- Psychological Perspective: emphasizing broader attitudes and cognitive abilities which enable the learner to take responsibility for his/her own learning;
- Political Perspective: emphasizing empowerment or emancipation of learners by giving them control over the content and process of their learning.
A technical perspective on autonomy may emphasize the development of strategies for effective learning: this approach is often referred to as “learner training”. A psychological perspective suggests fostering more general mental dispositions and capacities; while a “political” perspective highlights ways in which the learning context can be made more empowering for the learning.
Another dimension of student autonomy is teacher autonomy. We should never forget that discussions of autonomous learning tend to focus on the learner. However, as the other side of the coin, I believe that the development of learner autonomy depends crucially on the development of teacher autonomy. We all accept that the traditional view of teachers as the principal source of educational content and control may mismatch with the objectives of autonomous learning, and with the learning opportunities provided by the new technologies. In some cultures, teachers themselves are not very autonomous in the sense that they were not given enough opportunities to develop their skills as autonomous learners when they were students. Therefore, they should not be expected to be able to promote autonomy when they themselves are unable to incorporate these reflective and self-management processes into their own teaching.
Implications for Teaching
As teachers, we need to identify how and to what extent autonomy helps our learners to become better language learners. Among several issues that can be raised regarding the effectiveness of autonomy, one issue is how the notion of autonomy, described in terms of the control of the learning process, makes it possible for learners to become efficient and successful language users. Moreover, how the ability to take responsibility for their learning enables learners to negotiate meaning and solve problems stemming from the international use of English. Once we are able to define this, as teachers and students, teachers can start to integrate some meaningful instructional activities into students’ learning process. Some believe that these activities should come as a part of the curriculum, and be implemented throughout the whole course of teaching activities, as well as teaching administration systems, and that students’ interest and awareness of the learning process should be raised through task-based activities (Vesisenaho et al., 2010). Others suggest that the learners should be given more opportunities for interaction among themselves, as well as with their teacher, since this will create a more cooperative climate, leading to the development of negotiation in learning. Eventually, this will lead learners to extend their learning and decision making strategies, which will give more scope to developing learning skills, and more autonomy will follow as a result.
Not thinking very different, Thanasoulas (2000) believes that to posit ways of fostering learner autonomy is certainly to posit ways of fostering teacher autonomy. To him, teacher autonomy permeates into learner autonomy. He talks about three things that the learner can do in order to attain a considerable degree of autonomy:
- Diaries and evaluation sheets
- Persuasive communication as a means of altering learner beliefs and attitudes
According to Thanasoulas (2000), in order to make students autonomous they should be aware of how they go about a learning task. Helping them become aware of their own strategies is to assign a task and have them report what they are thinking while they are performing it. This self-report is called ‘introspective’, as learners are asked to introspect on their learning. Keeping a diary is the second method. The role of diaries and evaluation sheets is to offer students the possibility to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning, identifying any problems they run into and suggesting solutions. Lastly, a persuasive communication is a discussion presenting information and arguments to change the learner’s evaluation of a topic, situation, task, and so on. These arguments could be either explicit or implicit, especially when the topic is deemed of importance. If, for instance, a deeply ingrained fear or belief precludes the learner from engaging in the learning process, persuasive communication purports to help bring these facts to light and identify the causes that underlie them.
Above, I stated that the aim of this paper is to discuss the concept of autonomy and investigate whether it is really possible to create autonomous learners and teachers. When talking about autonomy, no one should take it as a one dimensional, easy-to-define concept. Consequently, it is believed that as Smith (2003:255) summarizes: “a clear, though potentially discomforting implication is that autonomy is a multifaceted concept, susceptible to a variety of interpretations”, and that leads us to the point that if it can mean almost everything, then it might end up meaning nothing at all.
Benson, P. (2001). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning. Harlow, UK: Longman.
Benson, P. (2007). Autonomy in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching 40(1), 21–40.
Candy, P. C.(1991).Self-direction for Lifelong Learning. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, California.
Cotterall, S. (2000). Promoting learner autonomy through the curriculum: principles for designing language courses. ELT Journal, 54(2), 109–17.
Thanasoulas, D. (2000). What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered? The Internet TESL Journal, 6(11).
Smith, R. C. (2003). Postscript: Implications for Language Education. In Smith, R. C. & Palfreyman, D. (eds). Learner autonomy across cultures: language education perspectives. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 304.
Tschirhart, C. and Rigler, E. (2009). LondonMet e-packs: a pragmatic approach to learner/teacher autonomy. Language Learning Journal.37(1), 71–83.
Vesisenaho, M., T. Valtonen, J. Kukkonen, S. Havu-Nuutinen, A. Hartikainen, and S. Karkkainen. 2010. Blended learning with everyday technologies to activate students’ collaborative learning. Science Education International 21(4), 272–83.
Vieira, F. (2009). Struggling for Autonomy in Language Education: Reflecting, Acting, and Being.Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang.
Note: This article was published in The Teacher magazine no. 1(155)2018, pp. 25-28.
Nesrin Oruç Ertürk holds a Ph.D. in English Language Teaching. Between 2003-2004 she worked as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant as a Fulbright Scholar at the State University of New York (SUNY), at Binghamton. Since 2008, she has been working at Izmir University of Economics as an instructor at School of Foreign Languages and has been assigned as the Undergraduate English Program Coordinator since 2011. She is the Academic delegate of Turkish Educational Sciences Journal (2008), Member of Editorial Board of Journal of International Social Research (2010), and Member of Board of Reviewers of Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language Journal (TESL-EJ) since 2011. She has many articles and books published in both national and international journals and has attended and presented at numerous national and international conferences.