Thursday, January 7, 2010

Learner Autonomy in Perspective

Learner Autonomy in Perspective

(First published in The Island on Wednesday 30th December 2009)

Although the statement that effective learning occurs only when the learner assumes responsibility for his/her own learning may seem a truism today, it is worth a serious re-appraisal as it has crucial implications for the success of the national English language teaching drive now underway. It may be argued that those who are involved in this huge undertaking could short-circuit certain potential difficulties such as personnel and other resource deficits, and restrictions on the availability of time in the implementation of the programme by promoting learner autonomy not only among the students, but also among the teachers. (To develop themselves professionally teachers must perforce be engaged in learning, too.)

The term learner autonomy was coined in 1981 by Henri Holec. He is known as the “father” of the concept. Holec defined learner autonomy as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning”.

Learner autonomy – roughly, a situation in which a student chooses his/her own learning objectives, targets, content, assessment, strategies etc. independently – is usually treated as a Western cultural concept, and, in fact, it is sometimes criticized as unsuitable for non-Western cultures on that account. However, my own view is that the notion that learning ultimately belongs to the learner, and that learning is an activity that the student himself/herself must perform internally without teacher intervention is not actually alien to us; it is very much a part of our traditional education culture; ours is a culture that rates the gathering of knowledge highly. The traditional assumption ingrained in our culture that the student must do the real learning, while the teacher’s duty is to enable the student to do so is implicit in the Sinhalese verb uganwanawa (which is usually imperfectly translated into English as teach ). In reality, uganwanawa has a causative meaning: make (someone) learn/cause (someone) to learn . So, what could be more compatible with the idea of learner autonomy than this conception of teaching?

In the second/foreign language teaching/learning field in the West, the notion of learner independence came to the fore in association with new methodological innovations which were introduced following a shift of focus from the mastery of structure to the development of communicative ability as the central preoccupation of language teaching about forty years ago (in the 1970s and 80s). Under the Audio-lingual method that had prevailed before, structure was considered crucial, but meaning less decisive in language teaching, and it was assumed that habit formation was the way that languages were learnt. As a consequence, language practice consisted in drilling structural patterns, and in memorizing grammar-based dialogues. The linguists and language teaching practitioners who challenged both the audio-lingual theories and practices maintained that language learning involved complex cognitive processes rather than mere mechanical habit formation, and proposed various cognitive techniques as alternatives. The communicative approaches that emerged later in reaction to Audiolingualism subscribed to the ideological premise that learning a language means learning to communicate through it in meaningful contexts.

The discovery learning principles first adumbrated by Jerome Bruner (1967) favoured the recognition of the learner as the central player in a communicative language teaching/learning situation. The learner-centred concept of instruction gave the language learner, at least in theory, a fair degree of control over the learning process, something earlier enjoyed exclusively by the teacher. The teacher was now assigned different, but equally crucial roles such as guide, facilitator, counselor, etc.

What came to be known as ‘humanistic techniques’ (e.g. Community Language Learning –CLL- developed by Chales A. Curran, Professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, and later written about at greater length by his pupil La Forge in the early 1980s) were concerned with the development of the whole person including not only linguistic knowledge and behvioural skills, but also the affective aspect (i.e. emotions and feelings), which, until then, had received little or no attention from researchers in the field.

Thus the principle of learner independence as a viable educational premise found itself ensconced in a conducive environment that would foster in the learner such qualities as a positive attitude, a capacity for reflection and deep understanding, and a resourceful and cooperative mindset in social interaction. David Little (2003), a long time researcher of the subject, comments on his view of learner autonomy in these words: “… there is a consensus that the practice of learner autonomy requires insight, a positive attitude, a capacity for reflection, and a readiness to be proactive in self-management and in interaction with others...... a holistic view of the learner that requires us to engage with the cognitive, metacognitive, affective and social dimensions of language learning and to worry about how they interact with one another. ....”.

The same researcher, in another document (than the one that I have just quoted from), mentions three pedagogical principles as forming the basis of the development of autonomy in the second/foreign language classroom:
• learner involvement
• learner reflection, and
• appropriate target language use
(I think I need not elaborate these as the readers, especially the initiate teachers, will find them self-explanatory.). From the above David Little extrapolates what the teachers should do to encourage learner autonomy among their pupils: to paraphrase him,
• use the target language as the preferred medium of classroom communication
• engage the learners in continuous search for good learning activities
• enable them to set their own learning targets
• require them to identify individual goals, but reach these through collaboration in small groups
• ensure that they keep written records of their learning (e.g. specific objectives, texts, tasks, lists of new words, etc.)
• get the students to regularly evaluate their progress as individual learners and as a class
(All these principles and practices, in my opinion, are particularly relevant to the context that is the focus of this article.)

Like discovery learning, learner autonomy cannot possibly be practiced to the exclusion of all other more traditional modes of instruction in a formal education setting like our school system. Schooling is a social pursuit, rather than an individual enterprise, and hence it precludes absolute learner autonomy. The individual learner needs to accommodate to the common goals and strategies of the social grouping of which s/he is a member. Students must share in a common pool of resources, accept specific educational aims and objectives determined for the whole country by a central authority, employ strategies universally prescribed, subject to periodic assessment and certification parameters, and so on, and thereby engage with a formidable national educational ‘monolith’. Such an institution makes a great demand on the administrators including the teachers for accountability in terms of regular monitoring of student progress, assessment and certification, etc.

English language students in a formal education setting like that, in order to become autonomous learners within the system, must learn to negotiate with inevitable restrictions on their ‘freedom’ (as seekers after knowledge). Each class represents a highly heterogeneous community of learners. They are from diverse social backgrounds; there are individual differences between them in terms of ability, motivation, and attainment levels. These differences are compounded by divergent personality traits. Such an environment makes the practice of learner autonomy both necessary and challenging.

Obviously, we cannot and should not leave everything to learner autonomy. But its integration into the general instruction system as a relevant and workable proposition is to be desired in view of the many advantages that can accrue from it. Like many other sound principles of education, learner autonomy can be made to work in combination with other methods, techniques and strategies.

To promote learner autonomy among the students, teachers need not give lectures about it. Instead they must devise activities, in association with the syllabuses and general guidelines officially provided, that encourage them to proceed on their own, independently consulting sources including the teacher if necessary. Both the teachers and the students must realize that learner independence does not mean the ‘Teach yourself’ mode of learning, although the autonomous learners could resort to it as a strategy occasioned by need.

An autonomous learner is responsible for his/her own learning, a situation that normally upsets the conventional relationship between the teacher and the pupil. In a traditional classroom setting, the teacher presides over the proceedings, reserving exclusive rights for making all the choices – about the objectives, the subject matter, the strategies employed. But the learner autonomy criterion allocates to the learner a controlling role in the learning situation, which allows him or her to use the teacher as a resource like any other resource.

This is because learner autonomy shifts the focus from teaching to learning; learning becomes central, and teaching ancillary to it.. Learner independence gives maximum controlling power to the learner. But it does not isolate one learner from the other learners; peer support and cooperation are essential factors in a class where learner autonomy operates.

Mutual support and cooperation are paramount in a second/foreign language learning situation. The prevalent communication-based language development approach demands that the students use the target language for communication in a meaningful context in order to acquire proficiency in it. A class of learners who are more or less at the same level of competence in the language will find free communal synergy an excellent resource for collective advancement. David Little has this to say in this connection: “...... and if language learning depends crucially on language use, learners who enjoy a high degree of social autonomy in their learning environment should find it easier than otherwise to master the full range of discourse roles on which effective spontaneous communication depends”.

In today’s highly competitive examination-oriented tuition culture, such social collaboration will take a lot of convincing to materialize. We know that some students in schools and private institutions, and even in seats of higher learning, preparing for exams show a marked reluctance to share their knowledge or sources of information with their colleagues for fear that such sharing would spoil their own chances of success. They must be taught that such egotistic concerns are not only baseless, but counterproductive.

In a language learning context collaborative interaction amounts to social autonomy. It is doubly profitable. If language use is the way to learn it, here the end and the means become identical. The more collaboration there is (i.e. in terms of communicative use of English), the more language learning will result.

Once a teacher demonstrated to his class how useful sharing of language knowledge could prove for everybody. “Let’s imagine”, he said, “that we have decided to pool all the money that we have between us, and share it again so that each of us will have the same amount of money at the end. When we share the money like this, those of us who had more money at the beginning will end up having less, and those of us who had less to begin with, will end up having more than before. So, in that kind of transaction, some of us are bound to lose, and some to gain. If we decided to share our linguistic competence in English instead, everybody will gain, and no one will lose, because those who knew more at the beginning will have enhanced their competence even further at the end, and those who had less knowledge at the beginning will end up with an improved competency level. The reason is that the sharing in the form of interaction will invariably benefit both categories of learners”.

The new English language competency raising endeavour of the government is an ambitious initiative launched in the general interest of the youth of the country. For its success the active involvement of the learners themselves is crucial. In ensuring this both the teachers and the parents have a vital role to play.

Mere classroom teaching alone will not be adequate. Teachers must convince the students and their parents that, if the students take on responsibility to learn the language without depending on the schools or tuition centres to do that for them, they can do it easily in a relatively short time. Fortunately for them, English is common currency in Sri Lanka today. There is plenty of it in circulation. Those who are interested can have it for the asking. Students must interact with the English that is around them. They can watch English movies with a conscious desire to learn some English; they can learn English while listening to sports commentaries or exchanging sms messages with their friends or browsing through the Internet or reading billboards on the roadsides, and so on.

That kind of active engagement with English can be expected of our students if they acquire the special attribute of learner autonomy, something they can exploit both in private and in a social setting.. The new technology can free them from the restrictions imposed on them by classroom conditions while in school. For example, they can watch a complete film in which they have developed an interest by watching an episode in it shown in the class by the English teacher as a part of a lesson. Both teachers and parents should help create the environment that is necessary for the autonomous students to engage in proactive language learning at all times.

Little, D (2003) “Autonomy and second/foreign language learning” retrieved 27th December 2009 from
Holec, H (1981) as referred to in / autonomy/

Rohana R. Wasala

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